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Don Bachardy and Charles Hood Talk Portraits in Santa Monica

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

By Melonie Magruder
Lookout Staff

December 5, 2012 -- Portraiture – it’s been one of human kind’s most enduring pursuits since man painted on cave walls. And as described Monday night by Charles Hood, current Writer in Residence at the Annenberg Community Beach House, and Don Bachardy, internationally known portrait artist, portraiture might be the most elusive and aggravating of artistic endeavors.

During Monday evening’s event at the Beach House in Santa Monica, “On Portraiture: A Conversation with Don Bachardy and Charles Hood,” the two artists attempted to explain just why perfect portraiture, whether in drawing, painting, sculpture or photography, continues to fascinate and frustrate.

Hood is a writer who has practiced his art in such diverse ways as translating tribal poetry in New Guinea, conducting a survey of the solar system and meditating on faith and history.

His insights on visual art, accompanied by painted portrait examples from Velasquez to Lucien Freud and photographs from an African American slave to the singer Ella Fitzgerald, were delivered with rapid-fire enthusiasm as he elucidated the many reasons why portraiture is impossible.

Portrait of poet Robert Peters by Don Bachardy. Photos Credit The Annenberg Beach House.

“Sometimes the problem starts with the sitter,” Hood said. “There is a power relationship, and the artist has no status. Maybe that’s why, when Lucien Freud painted Queen Elizabeth, he made her look like a roadkill pug.”

According to Hood, there are many reasons portraiture presents intangible challenges: the weight of art history makes it difficult to judge value; dealing with the materiality of paint versus constantly changing human form; technical skill doesn’t necessarily equate to compelling insight; the fame of the artist might get in the way of appreciating the portrait for itself. Anyone who views a Frida Kahlo painting also views her tumultuous life and loves.

“What about the issue of ‘timelessness’ in a portrait,” Hood asked, while showing a 17th century portrait of a wealthy woman wearing an impossible, pleated neck ruff. “Can you look at this the same way you look at a 1955 photograph of my grandparents standing in front of their Plymouth? My grandma was just as proud of that fur stole she’s wearing as this lady was of her ruff.”

Hood, who teaches writing, photography and journalism at Antelope Valley College, clearly has an extensive background in art history and appreciation.

He was as quick to point out the architectural construct of a David Hockney painting of a Southern California backyard as to observe that, whereas “the one-bosomed woman is a tradition in portraiture,” portraits of nude men “just piss people off.”

And to make things more difficult, painted portraiture has to compete with photography nowadays. Some photography, even those photos created 100 years ago, can resonate powerfully today. One photograph showed the Danish writer Isak Dinesen posing in front of a dead zebra she had just shot. There were audible gasps in the auditorium.

“Photography simplifies and reduces our interaction with art,” Hood said.

To underscore that point, Hood showed several of the paintings that Bachardy has created over his illustrious career, and they were as remarkable for what they showed as for what they left out.

Bachardy, a longtime Santa Monica resident, was the life companion of writer Christopher Isherwood, and it was Isherwood who recognized Bachardy’s talents and encouraged him to attend art school. His work hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Huntington Library and Gallery, the Smithsonian Institute and the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Bachardy ended up painting and drawing portraits of the mighty – Henry Fonda, Jack Nicholson, Governor Jerry Brown – and the unknown. He frequently would find random people on the beach and ask them to sit for him.

Some of those subjects’ identities are lost to history and Hood’s next project includes writing fictional biographies of them, titled “Back Stories.” Bachardy spoke at length about his experiences painting the known and unknown. His lack of pretense or self-congratulation was disarming.

When asked how he knew he has done good work, Bachardy said, “Frequently, I don’t. I can’t think of any career more difficult to choose than portraiture, but it’s what I was interested in. All these world-famous people sitting for me? I don’t know where I got the nerve to ask them.”

After 50 years of painting, Bachardy is full of funny stories and blunt observations of the mystery of portraiture.

“I am very shy,” he said. “Sometimes I think I invented myself as a portrait artist just so I could really look at someone closely. Portraits are a collaboration. It’s an exchange between the sitter and the artist and I’ve been very lucky.”

When asked why his portrait of Gov. Brown, which hangs in the state Capitol building, seems “unfinished,” Bachardy told of the difficulty in capturing Brown during the five sittings he had with the governor.

“Some people are restless and I have to get into their rhythm,” Bachardy said. “I’ll just hope to get something essential. You boil it down to the most crucial parts of the face and get the living quality. And sometimes that essence can be achieved in just a few moments.”

Bachardy told of once climbing over the fence to the Marion Davies beach house, back before it was demolished years ago. In describing the experience, he could have been describing his career.

“I saw this huge pool and jumped in,” he said. “Then I looked toward that vast, deep end and was just terrified. The memory never left me.”

Don Bachardy’s next exhibit is scheduled to show at the Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station. Hood’s Writer in residence tenure at the Beach House will be documented in blog posts at

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