ARTS & CULTURE

Don Bachardy puts honest face on fame in 'Hollywood'

Portrait artist Don Bachardy captures showbiz luminaries in a new collection of his works, 'Hollywood'

He might be the only man with an opportunity to see Angelina Jolie in the nude who told her to please keep her clothes on.

Portrait artist Don Bachardy had been commissioned in 2005 by Jolie's mother, Marcheline Bertrand, to document the actress' growing belly during each trimester of her first pregnancy. When Jolie arrived at Bachardy's Santa Monica home studio, she immediately began to undress.

"I said, 'Oh, wait, wait!'" exclaims the artist, now 80, before cracking a mischievous grin. "I wanted to do at least one clothed picture of her, just to prove I could hold my hand steady enough to keep it from shaking."

After that first picture, Jolie disrobed and Bachardy realized "she was actually more comfortable without her clothes on than with."

"That's a very rare sitter," Bachardy says. "Very rare."

Bachardy would know. His new book, "Hollywood," features more than 300 portraits of Tinseltown luminaries both classic (Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth) and contemporary (Jack Nicholson, Robert Downey Jr.), the bulk of which have never been published before.

As the artist reaches this rich moment in his career, he is also carrying the weighty legacy of his longtime partner, English novelist Christopher Isherwood, whose work is celebrating two important benchmarks: the 75th anniversary of "Goodbye to Berlin," upon which the musical "Cabaret" was based, and the 50th anniversary of "A Single Man," which was inspired by his love for Bachardy. Isherwood died in 1986, but the couple's influence on each other remains an enduring subject of fascination among their fans.

Bachardy recently visited Berlin for the first time to talk about those influences and to commemorate the books' anniversaries with Katherine Bucknell, the Isherwood scholar who has edited the writer's journals and letters. Between protecting Isherwood's memory, promoting his book and taking new commissions, including one by W magazine to paint Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo and Marion Cotillard, Bachardy is a busy man.

In the three-bedroom home he shared with Isherwood, a land line rings with a persistence that makes Bachardy bristle.

"God, that phone! I wish it'd stop going," he says.

Thin and fragile-looking despite regular sessions at the gym, Bachardy has short-cropped white hair and an impish demeanor. When he thinks he has said something naughty, he giggles like a schoolboy, revealing gapped front teeth. Although he was born and raised in Los Angeles, he speaks with a vaguely British accent, perhaps as a result of the 33 years he spent with Isherwood.

"They had this intimate family bond, almost like brothers," says Bucknell from her home in London. "They took other lovers and so on, but thanks to this insoluble bond between them, they found a way to live and be happy and creative."

During Bachardy's trip to Berlin, where he and actor Simon Callow held a reading of Isherwood's work and German Ambassador John Emerson hosted a dinner in the pair's honor, much attention was paid to Bachardy and Isherwood's status as pioneers of the gay liberation movement — not necessarily for their politics but for the open way they led their lives.

Isherwood, Bucknell says, was one of the first major writers to create gay characters who were allowed to be "happy, healthy and whole."

Isherwood, having explored his sexuality to the fullest during his early years in Weimar Berlin, taught Bachardy, 30 years his junior, never to be ashamed of being gay. He took him to glamorous Hollywood parties at the home of David Selznick and Jennifer Jones that left Bachardy "goggle-eyed." It was at these parties, and many others, that Bachardy met the coterie of stars who would become his most beloved subjects.

Isherwood, however, was his first live sitter. Before drawing him, Bachardy had simply copied images from movie magazines. It was an experience that changed his life and came to define his signature style. He completes portraits in a single three- to four-hour sitting, and he refuses to sugarcoat what he sees. The result is rough and lifelike, filled with imperfection and revealing of emotion, no matter how closely guarded by his subject.

"I can't cheat," Bachardy says. "The whole point of drawing from life is to draw what I see, and the truth of what I'm looking at is always far more interesting to me than any fantasy I may have in my head about a particular personality."

In the case of Isherwood, who was 48 when Bachardy's eye first zoomed in on him, what Bachardy saw was age.

"I lovingly rendered all those lines and pouches, and so when Chris came around and had his first look at it there was this stunned silence," Bachardy recalls. "Here was his young lover creating this really unflattering portrait of him. But it looked very much like him, just him as a much older man."

Signatures from his subjects are one of Bachardy's trademarks, but occasionally a sitter dislikes the picture and refuses to sign the work.

"Don Bachardy is a superb example of a master draftsman. He uses very few lines to create highly compelling, realistic images," says Asma Naeem, assistant curator of prints and drawings at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., which houses Bachardy prints, including one of the L.A. artist Ed Ruscha. "You can paint as many famous people as you want, but if you're not good and you don't command the sitter's respect, you don't become as accomplished as Bachardy is."

With the release of "Hollywood," Bachardy says he's done his service to this storied town. The book follows "Stars in My Eyes," released in 2000, in which celebrity portraits were accompanied by the often-unflattering observations Bachardy jotted down in his journal after each sitting. "Hollywood" contains no commentary but does include a new sampling of drawings spanning the length of his career.

All the Hollywood glitter is a bit misleading, Bachardy says, because celebrities account for only about 4% of the portraits he has done.

"That doesn't mean I haven't done a lot of celebrities," he says. "It means I've done an awful lot of work."

Some of that work, like Jolie's pregnancy portraits, are in private hands, but most are crammed into Bachardy's split-level studio. The volume keeps Bachardy up at night, and he is contemplating a better home for them, most likely at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, which already has the bulk of Isherwood's papers. One day the idea is that their legacies will be as intertwined in death as in life.

For the time being, though, he is just happy to see so many of them in "Hollywood," which contains the greatest variety of his work of any book. It's a tribute to his age and experience, which has taught him where to look for truth in the quiet moments that pass between him and another human.

"My favorite part of any portrait is always the mouth," he says. "Of course eyes are more telling than anything else, but the mouth is where the personality of a person most expresses itself."

Twitter: @jessicagelt

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