Portrait Of The Artist (As An Old Man)


By Bruce Shenitz

In the middle of 1985, it became unavoidably clear that Christopher Isherwood was dying. Almost from the time he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, in 1981, the 81-year-old author had been gradually shutting down, quietly preparing himself -- and his 51-year-old lover, Don Bachardy -- for the end. He had stopped making entries in the diary he had kept for decades, went out less and less, and announced he would no longer write letters. But there remained a final task, at once marvelous and harrowing: Bachardy, who had been drawing and painting Isherwood throughout their 32-year relationship, ceased working with other subjects and turned his attention entirely to his lover.

'It's one of the most valuable gifts among many valuable gifts that Chris gave me, the experience of watching him die,' says Bachardy, sitting in the Santa Monica home he shared with Isherwood for more than 25 years. 'It helped me to accommodate myself to the idea of my own death.' Over the last six months of Isherwood's life, Bachardy made 441 drawings and paintings of his lover.

Executed with Japanese brushes, the drawings have the spare, understated power of final things. Some are difficult to look at -- in many, Isherwood is clearly in pain, and some were done in the minutes and hours after his death. Though drawing Isherwood was a way for Bachardy to be with him during his final illness, it didn't mitigate the loss. 'No amount of thinking one's prepared for it -- just because it's obviously going to happen -- means that you get through it OK,' he says. 'It's always different from what you think it will be.'

In a different kind of tribute, Bachardy began to read the writer's diary -- on the day Isherwood died -- something he had never done while he was alive. 'Almost like I was sleepwalking, I went to his desk and took that first volume, which was actually the last volume, and started reading backward,' he says. 'It was like he was having a dialogue with me.'

The dialogue between the writer and the artist has been movingly told in the recent documentary Chris & Don: A Love Story. Meanwhile, a film adaptation of Isherwood's masterly novel A Single Man -- inspired in part by his relationship with Bachardy -- has been directed by the designer Tom Ford and is scheduled for release later this year. And Bachardy's art continues to win new admirers. According to Peter Plagens, an artist and former art critic for Newsweek, 'Bachardy's portraits look satisfyingly like the person portrayed. They have a style that's unmistakably Bachardy.' New York artist Jack Pierson describes the 'Last Drawings' series as 'the peak of Bachardy's achievement. They are breathtaking. The beauty is so great, the death is transformed.' After 50 years of dedicated work, it looks like the 74-year-old Bachardy is finally getting his due.