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Face to Face With Don Bachardy : In His Studio, One Can Learn a Lot by Sitting for Hours, Perfectly Still

August 17, 1986|CAROLYN SEE | Carolyn See's new novel, "Golden Days," published by McGraw-Hill, will appear this fall.

It's an April morning, damp with pearly, luminescent fog that's bound to wear off by 10 o'clock. You're going to get your portrait painted today by Don Bachardy, the man who painted Gov. Jerry Brown's official picture, the one that scandalized the Legislature. It got stuck off somewhere above an obscure staircase in the Statehouse. Don Bachardy, who lived with British writer Christopher Isherwood for more than 30 years (they were the first same-sex pair ever covered in the "Couples" section of People magazine). Isherwood, who dined with Virginia Woolf and learned from E. M. Forster and palled around with Stephen Spender and collaborated with W. H. Auden. Bachardy, who's painted Forster and John Gielgud and Marlene Dietrich and Jon Voight and Dorothy Parker and Ginger Rogers and Teri Garr and Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne and every other living being worth painting and this morning--in the first of three sittings--is painting you. Actually, me.

It doesn't have to be written that on this day my hair looks like Elsa Lanchester's (whom he also painted, of course), that strange puffy circles seem to be occurring not just under my eyes but all over my face, that my wrists and ankles seem to be swelling with some strange toxemia--the body gone berserk, the body out of control. What else should be happening? I wear a plain blue linen top and a locket from my grandmother (and, stupidly, a skirt with a pattern).

I drive down the coast, the Pacific a sullen deep blue. Turn into Santa Monica Canyon. Get lost. Get lost again. Get on the right street, get lost again . And, with trepidation, go down a driveway, find a white-painted wooden gate, ring a bell.

There's a scrambling on the stairway, and the door opens. Bachardy grins; his hair catches in the breeze. He speaks, with a slight and very elegant stammer. (Isherwood 50 years before wrote of a Cambridge don who stammered very slightly, just because he liked the sound of it.) "M-may I get you something? Juice, or some tea?" We're still on the stairs. He points me into his studio, a two-level, verandaed building on the left; then he clatters down more stairs to the right and into the house for tea.

The studio! It hugs a slippery canyon wall. One side is all glass windows, with a perfect view down the gorge to the toy cars on the highway and then to the sea. Below us, a dinky patio is smothered by ivy, nasturtiums, succulents, some of those purple flowers that grew in everybody's backyard 40 years ago--and the smell of ocean, gasoline, wet stucco, grass, fog burning off: all Southern California in one sniff. As you look to the ocean there are dozens of eyes, Christopher Isherwood's eyes, burning--cornflower blue--into your back. After Isherwood's death in January, Twelvetrees Press asked Bachardy to prepare a retrospective of all the paintings he's done of his friend. From three walls, Isherwood stares at you or away from you: Here he's in pen-and-ink, looking away; here he reclines on a pale, watercolored sofa pillow; here he has stars for eyes; here he stares from a turquoise background and pale orange aura; here, in a dazzling combination of love and truth, he snores like an old guy, his mouth gaping. (The last time I saw Isherwood he was standing at a Bachardy exhibit, dressed in a natty tropical suit, rosy with health and good humor, posing just underneath that "sleep" portrait. "I'm still here!" was his silent message then. "Don't believe everything you see!")

Bachardy is back, holding a glass cup of tea with the bag still in it. "I'm sitting you here, Carolyn," he says, and sticks me in a chair with a pillow on it, facing the ocean. Then he fiddles with a gadget that looks like a rocking horse without the horse, a bicycle without the wheels. It holds an easel and a seat, and Bachardy sits on it, poking about in his paints, sighing, breeze whiffling through his hair. "Just, uh, get comfortable," he says.

And I don't remember him saying anything else. How does one know that one is supposed to sit still, still, still , and look into Bachardy's eyes? One knows , that's all. Why waste this man's time? Everything, the air here, speaks of work getting done.

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