“ Christopher Isherwood is largely responsible for the cultural vision of Berlin that we have today”
Katherine Bucknell is the director of the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and a founder of the W.H. Auden Society. She has edited four volumes of diaries by Christopher Isherwood as well as The Animals, a collection of love letters between Isherwood and his partner Don Bachardy. She is a curator of the exhibition My Dearest Sweet Love: Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy opening, June 14th at the Schwules Museum. We sat down to talk about the exhibition, David Hockney, and the lasting impact of Isherwood and Bachardy’s lives and work.
For those who might not know already, who are Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy? What’s their connection to Berlin?
Christopher Isherwood was an English novelist, born in 1904, best known for his novels Goodbye to Berlin and Mr. Norris Changes Trains, which were the inspiration for the famous musical Cabaret. He lived at various addresses in Berlin from 1929 to 1933, one was just around the corner from the Schwules Museum, at Nollendorfstraße 17. Berlin at that time was a city of artistic and sexual freedom; Isherwood’s time here changed his life. However, with the rise of the Nazis, it became unsafe for him as for so many others. Police inquired at his lodgings while he was out of town; they probably knew that he had done translating work for the German Communist Party as well as about his sexuality. He decided to leave Berlin in the spring of 1933.
When did he meet Don Bachardy?
Isherwood eventually left Europe in 1939 and settled in Hollywood, California. He met Don Bachardy in Santa Monica in the early 1950s. Bachardy was 30 years younger than Isherwood, which caused quite a stir among their friends and family, but they moved in together anyway in 1953, when Bachardy was 18. Eventually Bachardy established his own identity as a portrait artist. He drew and painted many stars, including the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Tennessee Williams, Igor Stravinski, Greta Garbo, Jack Nicholson, and even Angelina Jolie.
So why did Christopher Isherwood choose to move to Hollywood after leaving Europe?
I guess you could say Isherwood was drawn to the hedonistic atmosphere of Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, something Berlin is still known for today, and it’s something he also saw in Hollywood. But, perhaps more importantly, Isherwood was always crazy about the movies. He went to Hollywood in 1939 to work as a script writer and he became quite successful at it. He and Bachardy even worked on some films together, including a screenplay for Frankenstein: The True Story directed by Jack Smight in 1973.
What can we expect from the exhibition “My Dearest Sweet Love”?
Well there’s certainly a lot to see. In addition to the Schwules Museum’s archival materials on Isherwood and Cabaret, there is a large body of work by Bachardy. There are two portraits of Isherwood and six drawings from the Mariposa Series, which portray leaders of the early gay and lesbian liberation movement in the US. There are twelve male nudes from a group of 800 that Bachardy painted at the turn of the twenty-first century. There are photographs by Wayne Shimabukuro and two works by renowned English painter David Hockney, with whom Bachardy and Isherwood were quite close.
You once edited a collection of love letters between Isherwood and Bachardy. Will they make an appearance in the exhibition?
The letters will feature in the exhibition as an audio podcast read by Simon Callow and Alan Cummings. The podcast includes the story behind Hockney’s famous double portrait Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy (1968) and brings to light some of the challenges the relationship endured. One of the things from these letters that seems shocking until people get more comfortable and familiar with Chris and Don is that they had other lovers… all the time.
“By 1976 you could portray two openly gay men relaxing together in their living room without much concern. In 1968 it was a big deal to show them as a couple at all!”
How did David Hockney meet the two?
When Hockney moved to Los Angeles in 1964, he was looking forward to meeting Isherwood. He gradually became fascinated by the couple’s relationship. In the spring of 1968, around the time that Hockney started on his painting, he offered the two his flat in London. Only Bachardy went. When he got there, Bachardy fell hard for Anthony Page, a successful theatre director just a little younger than he. Meanwhile Isherwood was sitting in Hollywood wondering what was going on, and Hockney was working on the painting with only Isherwood present. Hockney sensed what Isherwood was thinking—you can see it in the painting in the way Isherwood is shown turned sideways looking at Bachardy. In the exhibition we are showing a later work which reprises the theme, Hockney’s 1976 lithograph of Isherwood and Bachardy. The two are switched in position and pose. The conflicts have calmed down and they’re sitting in bathrobes. The whole attitude is less serious, almost jokey. By 1976 you could portray two openly gay men relaxing together in their living room without much concern. In 1968 it was a big deal to show them as a couple at all!
Why are Bachardy and Isherwood, their lives and work, relevant to those outside the gay white male community; to women and the broader, more diverse LGBTQI* community of today?
I think anyone who is a great artist can be appreciated by anyone. It’s not just about being gay. Isherwood always saw his writing as something for mainstream audiences and he certainly wasn’t writing his early Berlin stories just for the gay community. He thought constantly about literary strategies for introducing gay characters without scaring away his audience, and it’s something he wrestled with and developed throughout his career.
What about Don Bachardy?
Bachardy connects with his subject in the moment. When he finishes a portrait, he always has his subject sign and date the finished piece because for him the portrait sitting itself is a historical event, a moment of collaboration between him and the sitter. So in Bachardy’s Mariposa portraits, the series of portraits of pioneering American lesbian and gay activists, not only do we get an intimate view of this moment of the portrait’s creation, but also of the moment in American history when what we know today as the LGBTQI* movement was really taking off. You can see that Bruce Voeller, the scientist who commissioned the series, was a great beauty, and your heart stops when you see him, because he died of AIDS.
Could we think of this exhibition as a bit of a homecoming moment for Isherwood via his life and work?
He was always commemorating Berlin in his life and work and because of this, I think Isherwood is largely responsible for the cultural vision of Berlin that we have today. Isherwood returned to Berlin in 1952 and saw the city post-WWII, the Tiergarten stripped of trees and the jagged steeple of the Memorial Church. It was a moment when he realized the times he had lived and written about were over. But he noticed that a certain unique spirit survived, and for him it was in the German language and in the storytelling powers of Berliners.
Interview by Chris Paxton