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Don Bachardy’s Hollywood Portraits Make County Debut In Chula Vista

Reported by Katie Schoolov

Artist Don Bachardy has done portraits of everyone in Hollywood, from Jack Nicholson, to Angelina Jolie to director Robert Altman. The 81-year-old painter was the longtime partner of writer Christopher Isherwood and the two were openly gay in Hollywood at a time when most were closeted. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone has this profile of the artist whose portraits will be shown in San Diego for the first time.

Don Bachardy’s portraits of artists, actors and other cultural figures will be on view at the Southwestern College Art Gallery in Chula Vista.

Don Bachardy’s Santa Monica home is saturated with memories. Every inch of wall space is covered in artwork, the shelves stuffed with books.

The house holds his past: his 33-year relationship with British writer Christopher Isherwood, and artwork he’s collected through trading portraits. Bachardy says it was Isherwood who convinced him early on to start drawing people.

"It all came from him. I never would have become an artist if I hadn’t met him," said Bachardy on a recent visit to his home and studio.

Bachardy forged his own identity in the shadow of Isherwood, whose novel "Goodbye to Berlin" was the basis of the musical "Cabaret." Isherwood authored many novels, including the acclaimed "A Single Man," which was Isherwood's imagining of a life without Bachardy.

It was through Isherwood that Bachardy met the leading cultural figures of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. He began drawing and painting them.

Now 81, Bachardy still paints most days in a studio above the house, the same spot where writers, directors, musicians and actors have sat for him, everyone from Jack Nicholson, to Angelina Jolie and director Robert Altman.

Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

Don Bachardy's portrait of actress Tilda Swinton.

Photo credit: Courtesy Photo

Don Bachardy's portrait of Jerry Brown is the official gubernatorial portrait.

One of his portraits of Gov. Jerry Brown hangs on the studio wall (another is the official gubernatorial portrait that hangs in the State Capitol building). It has all of the Bachardy signatures: bold thick strokes of color, expressive eyes. It’s all about the face, says Bachardy, who grew up in Los Angeles going to movies with his mother.

"From a very early age looking at those giant close-ups of people, I got interested in faces and how revealing they are," Bachardy said, who speaks with a slight British accent, possibly picked up from his relationship with Isherwood.

Bachardy started drawing actors from photographs, but those were all retouched. Having someone sit for him was better. He could see lines and creases.

"Sometimes the most interesting effects in a face are the effects that are brought by time," Bachardy said.

That hasn’t always gone over well with his subjects. Actor Montgomery Clift sat for Bachardy years after a horrible car accident changed his matinee idol looks. Bachardy felt Clift wanted him to restore his beauty.

"But alas, I’m a portraitist and I can only record what I see," Bachardy said. "I can’t make people more beautiful and in fact it’s more likely to be the reverse because I put in everything I can see."

Isherwood was the first person to sit for Bachardy. They met on a beach in 1953 when he was 18 and Isherwood 48.

Bachardy has no regrets about spending decades with a man 30 years his senior.

"I've often said that my relationship with Chris saved me," Bachardy said. "I'd probably be dead by now if I hadn’t had a domestic partnership. I think I had a very good chance of dying from aids."

Their age difference raised eyebrows, but so did the fact that they were openly gay.

"We went to a big party in Beverly Hills and Henry Fonda was there and he introduced himself to Chris," Bachardy said. "I put my hand out and he turned his back on me. That was quite a put down."

Years later, Jane Fonda asked Bachardy to do a portrait of her father, who was near the end of his life. Bachardy said he was "wildly nervous."

"If he remembered that occasion he didn’t mention it. And why should he, it was years before," Bachardy said. "And also I think, largely due to Jane, his attitude had changed. He sat for me as well as anyone had ever sat."

Bachardy guesses he’s made more than 10,000 portraits in his life. Twenty-five of those will be on view in San Diego at the Southwestern College Art Gallery starting Sept. 10.

The only time he stopped working was in the six months leading up to Isherwood’s death. Bachardy canceled all of his sittings. He only drew Isherwood.

"Sometimes even in the last weeks when he was almost delirious, occasionally he would really come to himself and be alive like he had been," Bachardy said. "And that was very exciting and I was drawing as fast as I could to catch it, you know."

He did 447 drawings of Isherwood in those six months.

"Here I was looking at this man I’d known all those years so intimately and identifying with him to the point that it seemed like dying was something we were doing together," Bachardy said.

"The result is I’m not nearly as frightened of my own death because of that experience."

Don Bachardy’s portraits will be on view through Sept. 29 at the Southwestern College Art Gallery.

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