PRINT February 1992


SEEING, OF COURSE, is always perceiving—an imaginative integration of memory, feeling, and anticipation, all subsumed under the aegis of style, that haphazard collection of conventions and intentions. But Don Bachardy, in his recent book Last Drawings of Christopher Isherwood, gives the appearance of seeing simply and purely more than any draftsman I know, which is especially remarkable since whathe is looking at is the man he has lived with for some thirty years. Isherwood, when the drawings were made, was in his last months of life, had for the most part stopped talking, and seemed scarcely conscious of anything beyond his bodily suffering. With a paradoxically vigorous line, Bachardy recorded this collapse. Looking at Isherwood cruelly, if cruelty means honesty, he made these drawings the most disturbingly transgressive images I’ve seen of a man, a beloved man, dying and dead.

The pictures do little to remind me of any direct antecedents. Their forerunners in practice, though hardly in visual look, might be the death masks, even casts of the dead person’s hands, made in the 19th century as pious mementos, like the snippet of hair you might carry in a locket. But Bachardy has given us a series of perceptions, not fossils. As John Russell writes in his introduction to the book. “Faced with a death mask—glad as we may be to have so exact a record—we feel above all that nobody’s home. In these drawings we feel that Isherwood is as much at home as a human being can be.” Other precedents might include Joseph Severn’s drawing of his friend Keats in death, or, from between 1913 and 1915, the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler’s repeated drawings of his mistress, Valentine Godé-Darel, in her gradual decline, showing her playing with their child, for example, though gaunt and ill, and finally rendering her after death in murky paint tones with graphite underdrawing. But Severn’s saccharine sketch suggests none of the agonies of the tubercular poet, and Hodler, despite the closeness of their relationship, always drew Valentine at a distance, and seldom looking directly at him and at us. Bachardy’s pictures, on the other hand, record all of Isherwood’s distraction, pain, sullenness, disorientation, and growing inwardness. Positively invasive, they demand our complicity, and refuse us the security of a discreet, unchallenged distance.

With nasty wit, a line drawing of Isherwood in profile juxtaposes his sagging chin, bushy eyebrow, and downturned mouth with an inverted profile painted on his shirt of a young woman with fashionably plucked brows and luscious painted lips. On the facing page the symmetrical black brushstrokes describing his windbreaker suggest a bird’s feathery cape below a face stormy with mental confusion. In the first picture everything is rendered with a thin, dry, bounding line and contained white space; in the second, nothing is left blank except the surround. Elsewhere, the humble patience of dying is epitomized by clasped hands in a useless lap.

The closest equivalent to drawings like these may not be visual at all: it may be the prose of Simone de Beauvoir, who recorded every moment of Jean-Paul Sartre’s final decline in her 1984 book Adieu: A Farewell to Sartre. Childish drinking bouts, incontinence, memory lapses, bedsores, false teeth, ridiculous errors in judgment—the woman who spent forty years with this century’s best-known Western thinker leaves nothing out of her account of his moral and physical decay. Thus Bachardy, in diary entries excerpted in Last Drawings, worries about what he’s doing, using words like “ghoulish” and “ruthless,” but acknowledges Stephen Spender’s comment on his pictures: “They are both merciless and loving.” And he writes of his art, “It is the most intense way I know of to be with Chris. It is the only situation now in which we are both truly engaged.” After Isherwood’s death, he adds, “While Chris was dying, I focussed on him intensely hour after hour. I was able to identify with him to such an extent that I felt I was sharing his dying, just as I’d shared so many other experiences with him. It began to seem that dying was something which we were doing together.”

Bachardy met Isherwood when he was 18 and the writer was 48, and they spent the next 33 years together. An early photo of them is shocking, since Don looks barely a teenager—real jailbait. But over the years a mysterious personality exchange took place: Don developed an Oxford stutter and Chris became more and more Californian. Don seemed friendly but formal, Chris casual, and noticeably friendlier. In fact no one was better company than this man, who had accumulated decades of extraordinary experience but lived entirely in the moment. He’d been a member of the gentry in England, had lived in Berlin in the ’30s, then had worked for Hollywood. A friend of W. H. Auden and Spender, he was a Hindu convert who’d translated the Bhagavad-Gita. Just as his Berlin Stories created the myth of Germany between the wars, just as his Prater Violet is the best novel I know about the movies, his A Single Man, published in 1964, is one of the first and best novels of the modern gay liberation movement.

Bachardy did not regard as tragic the decline of this man’s brilliant mind, or his terminal cancer. A strange tropism oriented Chris to Don and Don to Chris throughout the last months of Isherwood’s life, from August 1985 to January 4, 1986, when he died. With wide open eyes Don looked at Chris, who returned the gaze whenever he wasn’t befuddled by the radiation and chemotherapy treatments. In this way Bachardy’s portraits penetrate a face known to a wide public—through book jacketphotos, postcards of authors, David Hockney’s paintings—and dissolve its exacerbated individuality into a kind of landscape.

Isherwood himself, in A Single Man, wrote of the self as a part of the landscape, as a sea pool in the rocks:

Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual entities, so you may think of a rock pool as an entity; though, of course, it is not. The waters of its consciousness—so to speak—are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled rock-gripping obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. . . . And, just as the waters of the ocean come flooding, darkening over the pools, so over George and the others in sleep come the waters of that other ocean—that consciousness which is no one in particular but which contains everyone.

This cosmic view of the self recalls the art that Bachardy’s drawings do in fact remind me of the most—the paintings of the Chinese artists, especially the Buddhists, who broke down the distinction between animate and inanimate and erased the differences amongst animal vegetable and mineral. In Song-dynasty art of the 11th to 13th centuries, a gnat-sized pilgrim often stares into an immense void, which is as charged with energy as is his regard. Jointed bamboo in this art has all the calligraphic force and subtlety and is evoked with the same brushstrokes—as the poem that may be written beside it. Three persimmons in a row, or a spider monkey with her babies in a tree, are the moral equivalents to the old man in the mountains in Liang K’ai’s 13th-century The Sixth Zen Patriarch Tearing Up a Sutra, who howls a laugh into the wind as he rips apart a sacred scroll, demonstrating the supremacy of sudden enlightenment over the useless accumulation of wisdom.

What is remarkable in this art is that individuals are rendered in all their peculiarity at the same time that they seem to be interchangeable, a sleight-of-hand made possible by the painters’ calligraphic style, in which strokes linked to drawing stone can also trace a nose or chin, and lines that classically render water, pines, or clouds can describe a robe, a wizard’s eyebrows, or a young woman’s floating hair. Bachardy has no such vocabulary of recognized conventions to draw on, but with his powers of improvisation he finds the protean exchanges between disparate components of matter—finds the skull under the face, reveals the relationship between bloated body and bony head, changes the inspired gaze of a seer into the angry grimace of a ruffled old baboon. The character-revealing line beside the mouth metamorphoses into the down stroke of a wing, the flowing creases in the forehead become a river, the light that bleaches out the fixed stare emanates from the mystic’s morning sun.

And yet the drawings are so quirkily individuated. Looking at them, it’s hard to remember Isherwood’s eastern view of the self as a rock pool, a nonentity. That paradox—between the impersonal forces of cosmic energy and the patterns, unique as a fingerprint, through which that energy flows, and that constitute what we call the individual—is the fertile contradiction that animates both Isherwood’s fiction and the drawings of Don Bachardy.

Edmund White’s latest book, a biography of Jean Genet, will be published by Knopf, New York, late in 1992.

All the illustrations in this article are from the book Last Drawings of Christopher Isherwood, by Don Bachardy, with contributions by John Russell and Stephen Spender, published by Faber and Faber, London and Boston, last year.