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Famed Artist Don Bachardy on Men, Love, and the Impact of AIDS

 Famed Artist Don Bachardy on Men, Love, and the Impact of AIDS

The beloved artist chronicled a lost generation while facing his own greatest loss.

Bachardy readily attributes his success as an artist to the early and continuing encouragement he received from beloved author Christopher Isherwood, whom he fatefully met on a beach in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1952. Although Bachardy was 18 and Isherwood 30 years his senior, the unlikely pairing not only survived, but thrived both domestically and creatively over the next three decades.

Recently, their love story was chronicled in the award-winning documentary film Chris & Don: A Love Story, and revealed through the publication of Isherwood’s diaries as well as The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. The latter was adapted into a podcast series starring Simon Callow and Alan Cumming, along with the Isherwood-Bachardy play A Meeting by the River. The novel A Single Man, arguably Isherwood’s masterwork, was adapted by designer-director Tom Ford into a critically acclaimed 2009 film starring Colin Firth. Isherwood’s 1976 memoir Christopher and His Kind was adapted into a BBC television film featuring Matt Smith.

Bachardy’s artwork, meanwhile, continues to be widely exhibited, and is in the permanent collections of the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the the Smithsonian, among many other institutions. His hundreds of celebrity subjects have included fellow artists, literary greats, movie stars, and politicians. His entire body of work, however, encompasses thousands of portraits that reveal the extraordinary in even the most ordinary of faces.

Isherwood succumbed to prostate cancer in 1986, just as friends of the pair as well as many of the young models with whom Bachardy was working, were being diagnosed with HIV. Bachardy has survived Isherwood and many of these friends by 30 years, as have two expansive portfolios of his work from that period: one collecting his poignant last drawings of Isherwood, and the other an extensive series of male nudes created in the immediate aftermath of Isherwood’s passing. Among these young men were several models who bravely encouraged Bachardy to document their decline due to AIDS complications — work the artist unflinchingly embraced and executed.

At age 85, Bachardy is still a prodigious artist, painting and working several days a week in the studio adjacent to the home he once shared with Isherwood in the Santa Monica Canyon. Two collections of his portraitures, Hollywood and Nudes, have recently been published. The life and love he and Isherwood shared have also been recounted and celebrated in exhibitions in Berlin, and a comprehensive new biography of Isherwood by Katherine Bucknell is forthcoming.

Famed Artist Don Bachardy on Men, Love, and the Impact of AIDS

Plus recently sat down with the legendary artist to discuss the impact of love and loss on his work:

Although distinctively expressed, you and Chris shared a gift of observation. Does his “I am a camera” hold any particular resonance for you as a portrait artist?
Without realizing it, Chris and I were perfect for each other because we both were fascinated by people. He had a literary interest: he heard. He heard how they talked, how they expressed themselves. And I looked at them. And it got to the point where, when Chris was writing about somebody we both knew, he would ask me how would I describe that person? And so it was a perfect balance.

Yours was a highly collaborative relationship, with Chris consulting you on his writing while continually encouraging you with your own work.
Of course in Chris, I had the ideal encourager. He was always there when I came home from art school, asking, “Let me see what you did.” And we would go through all the work together. He would pick out his favorites, and we would really share them. That was just golden. Without him, I could have never made it. I had to find Chris to bring it out…. I was just bursting with a need for a vocation, without really knowing where it might be. Unconsciously, I had been developing the accuracy of my eye by copying movie magazine portraits of actors. When I applied that to real-life people, I instantly made advancements in all of my classes. The other students my age were eventually standing behind me, watching me draw, asking to see the pictures I was doing. And that was exactly what I needed — that kind of encouragement to be regarded as special, not only by Chris, but by people my own age. I couldn’t get enough of that.

You nursed Chris through his final months, and, with his encouragement, you also approached this deeply personal experience as an artist would.
Being alone with him, day after day, and concentrating on him in that way I only do when I’m working — I mean, not only looking at him, but identifying with him, it really did seem like we were doing it together. So the last six months of his life, I was drawing him. And of course I knew he was slipping away. And as ruthless as I am when I am working, it was also the most intense way of being with him, of looking at him. That’s really what I needed: that intense closeness, being with him. That was my farewell to him. Just getting him in my head so that I could never get him out. And I never will.

As his life partner and as an artist, that must have been incredibly challenging.
Oh, yes. He was always a perfect sitter for me, but in those last months, last weeks, he was restless, moody; he was unfocused; he was sleeping. I was really doing it by his presence. I knew the face, the head, so well, that I only needed a second, as it were, to do each feature, because I knew him in my mind. But his presence was still powerful. I think it’s certainly the best work I’ve ever done, and in a way, it had to be, because it was he who had made me an artist. He had made it possible. I would never even have gone to art school without him.

What was it like trying to navigate a life on your own?
Well, I’ll tell you exactly how I handled it. He died in early ’86, and ’86 is by far the year with the most and fattest portfolios of my work. I literally worked seven days a week, almost every week. Long days, and sometimes working at night, if I had a really staunch model. They were all male nudes, because a patron was sending me beautiful young men. I was working, doing almost nothing but male nudes for almost three years. And a real intensity of work that isn’t matched in any other part of my life. It was real dedication to the work in the studio, and then to reading Chris’s journals at night. While we were living together, I never read any of his diaries, even though he never hid them from me. But without any acknowledgment to myself what I was going to do, at the end of the day he died, after his body had been taken out of the house, I went to where I always knew the journals were, and began first with latest volume. I worked back in time. And it was an amazing experience for me, as he’d guessed it would be, as many of the entries in the late journals were addressed, “Don, I know you’re going to be reading this after I’m dead.” And indeed, I was. And reading and rereading; getting it really into my head. It was so intimate, and I read slowly, savored every detail, and that’s what really got me through that first year without him.

During that same period, you also lost a number of dear friends to AIDS, the imprints of so many of whom still vibrantly live on in your portraits. Do any in particular come to mind?
Oh, yes. There was a pretty young boy who’d sat for me several times at the height of his beauty, and he was an early victim of AIDS, and he called me up especially to offer himself as a sitter, knowing that his beauty had already been ravaged. And so that was an invitation to me not to do any soft-pedaling. He encouraged me to put in everything I could see, and I did. It was anyway a part of my basic attitude to my work, but he was saying, don’t be ashamed to tell everything. And so I took him up on it, and it’s a shocking comparison. And there was only a year or two at the most between our sittings when he was so beautiful, and once he got AIDS, it was just all downhill. I think we did these two sittings, so I probably have at least four or five late pictures of him.

Do you know what his intention was in requesting that?
He wasn’t somebody who even suggested I only ever show one of the beautiful pictures I did of him. I think he was intelligent enough to know his beauty wouldn’t last, and he wanted it recorded. And instead of being ashamed of what AIDS did to him physically, he was intelligent enough to know there was a value in recording his decline. I guess he perceived he knew me well enough as an artist to know that I wouldn’t shrink from it. Given that license, I would make full use of it — and did. Whereas most young men, that was the last thing they would have thought of doing. And I thought it was so protective of him to know that telling me I had license would make it all the more irresistible to work with him. I didn’t have to worry about shocking him by my own recording of what he truly looked like. And he was devastated, physically, by the comparison: you would hardly know it was the same young man.

You’ve become a longtime supporter of various AIDS charities, and have donated your work to fundraising efforts.
Yes, always to that cause. Oh, certainly. Glad to. And I still do.

You’ve previously cited Chris’s illness as the reason you yourself didn’t contract HIV. Can you explain why you’ve thought this?
Yes, because I was home taking care of him. I mean, for the last six months he was alive we hardly saw anybody else. I felt that looking after him was my responsibility, and one that I really wanted to fulfill, because he had allowed me to have a wonderful life. And without him, I would never have become an artist. I’d never have had the courage to believe in myself. But I didn’t even really feel it was an obligation to take care of him. It was really something I wanted to do, and I knew how to do. And if it hadn’t been for my devotion to Chris, and if he hadn’t been in need of my attention to him personally, I would certainly have died of AIDS because I never took precautions. And once the epidemic started, it would have been too late, anyway.

Were you surprised at all to find that Chris didn’t mention much about HIV or AIDS in his later diaries, even though you were both losing friends and  were non-monogamous as a couple?
Oh, we certainly talked about it. I mean, everybody, all of us talked about it, of course, but I think he was too close to his own death to want to get into it. It was difficult enough coping, because he was somebody who had such an appetite for life, for experience, like very few people I’ve known. And also, he was beyond it, and I didn’t realize to what extent until after he was dead, when I read his diaries.

It’s remarkable that in so many ways, you were able to carry on a dialogue with Chris, just in going back through the diaries.
Yes, exactly. And that, of course, had not only occurred to me — as I just said, he addressed entries to me. It was like he was still holding my hand.

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