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Don Bachardy

On the Uneasy Alliance Between Hollywood and Art

June 15, 1997|Allison Silver | Allison Silver is the editor of the Opinion section

Los Angeles, at the fulcrum of popular culture, has had an uneasy relationship with high art. Serious artists have often had an uncomfortable time in the movie capital. And colleagues on the East Coast and in Europe usually looked askance at cultural figures who settled in Southern California, even such well-established members of the intelligentsia as Igor Stravinsky and Aldous Huxley, who remained because they loved the setting, if not the movie industry.

One British intellectual who sought out the sunny clime and stayed was Christopher Isherwood, the writer whose "The Berlin Stories" first metamorphosed into the play "I Am a Camera," then the musical "Cabaret." As evident in his diaries, the first volume of which was published several months ago, Isherwood reveled in the mix of high and low culture that was his daily life in Los Angeles. He sits down to lunch with Huxley and Greta Garbo, or has a well-lubricated dinner with Dylan Thomas and Shelley Winters, and records it all with the same steady dispassionate hand.

At his side, from 1953 on, was Don Bachardy. They met when Bachardy was 18 and Isherwood was 48 and, though the age difference should have been overwhelming, remained together until the writer's death from cancer, in 1986. Bachardy became a portrait painter of note who drew studies from life of many of the cultural and intellectual figures their lives intersected--everyone from Charles Laughton to Tennessee Williams, Montgomery Clift to James Baldwin, Rita Hayworth to E.M. Forster, Marlene Dietrich to John Ashbury. The National Portrait Gallery in London recently presented a show of his work--Bachardy says he has "always had much more attention as an artist in England than in L.A. or New York"--and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington then called him about mounting a similar show.

In a way, these portraits are a visual counterpart of his companion's meticulous diaries, drawn with a similar discerning eye. "All of my pictures are done in one sitting and they're all done on a specific day," the trim, natty artist explains. "They are all signed and dated by the sitters. So it really is a visual equivalent of a diary. I can tell you who I was spending the day with, on any specific date, going back 40 years."

Bachardy, now 63, still lives in the same Santa Monica house he and Isherwood moved into in 1959. From this hillside perch, the shy artist has seen the Southern California art world develop and flourish. He has also witnessed, close-up, Hollywood's continuing fascination with and rejection of the world of serious art. There is a chasm, Bachardy says, between the visual world of the movie maker and the visual world of the artist. They should "assume they were coming from different planets," Bachardy asserted in his clipped, mid-Atlantic accent, during a conversation in his art-filled living room earlier this week. After more than 40 years, he is still not sure how film and art fit together as pieces of the same cultural puzzle.

Question: Was there much contact between the intellectuals of Los Angeles, the writers and artists, and the Hollywood community?

Answer: The groups were pretty much closed off. Hollywood people, writers, actors, people in the business, more or less kept to themselves. And artists kept to themselves, and also the musicians. Chris and I--we had access to each of these worlds. But they weren't mixed. It was the exception when people from the different worlds met each other.

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: It's the nature of Los Angeles life. There doesn't seem to be that kind of community spirit or the people who organize it. Because an awful lot of people who've lived here don't feel a kind of identity with the place. They feel culture exists somewhere else--culture is in New York or London or Paris . . . .

I think it's expressed by the destruction, again and again, of all kinds of architecture that would create a sense of place and history--the Chaplin studios, the destruction of MGM and the back lot. There seems to be no real appreciation of this place as any kind of historical site. It become so identified as the movie capital of the world that other artists who lived here seem to have gone underground.

Q: Is there something about how people in Los Angeles, those involved in Hollywood, think about art that overshadows serious artists?

A: Well, collectors here, even when they buy the works of Southern California artists--and they often don't--they don't buy the work here, necessarily. They go to New York to buy it. Even if there's a show here, in a quite reputable gallery, somehow or other the serious pictures are going to be sold in New York.

. . . It seems self-deprecating of where one lives--to think that you go elsewhere for the serious art; for the serious consideration . . . . As though people felt guilty for living here. As if it's a kind of pleasure spa and, for anything serious, one has to look elsewhere.

Q: But artists are more accepted when they leave town.

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