BERLIN — In his diary, Christopher Isherwood once wrote some advice he gave to a friend who was having romantic trouble: “Don’t try to make the relationship exclusive. Try to make your part of it so special that nobody can interfere with it even if he has an affair with your lover.”
He knew what he was talking about. For 33 years, Mr. Isherwood lived in an open relationship with the artist Don Bachardy, which lasted through uncertainties and ecstasies until the British novelist’s death in 1986.
Their partnership is the subject of “My Dear Sweet Love: Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy,” an exhibition at the Schwules Museum in Berlin, running through August 26. The show explores the dynamics of the relationship through photographs and letters, as well as artworks by Mr. Bachardy and David Hockney, who moved in the same circles as the couple in Los Angeles in the 1960s.
When Mr. Isherwood and Mr. Bachardy met on the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. in 1952, Mr. Isherwood was already an established literary figure who had enjoyed a colorful sex life in Britain, Germany and the United States. Best-known for his semi-autobiographical novel “Goodbye to Berlin,” which inspired the musical and movie “Cabaret,” Mr. Isherwood was 30 years older than Mr. Bachardy, who was a college freshman at the time.
“Even though I was 18, I looked awfully young,” Mr. Bachardy, now 85, said recently by telephone from Santa Monica. “On our first trip to New York, a serious rumor went around town that Christopher had brought a 12-year-old with him from L.A.,” he added.
In a 2008 documentary about the relationship, screened as part of the exhibition program, Mr. Bachardy recalled: “Chris had been open with me about his past, all his lovers, all his adventures. I took the obvious position: Well, how can you deny me such adventures, such freedom?”
Katherine Bucknell, the director of the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and a curator of the show, said that both Mr. Isherwood and Mr. Bachardy encouraged the other to have lovers outside their relationship, and both did.
“Their bond was sexual, but it was also intellectual, creative and, above all, domestic,” Ms. Bucknell said.
One of the exhibition’s key strands is how each enriched the other’s work. Mr. Isherwood was instrumental in helping Mr. Bachardy discover his artistic capability, he said, reassuring him through many initial years of doubt. Mr. Bachardy’s works are now in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the National Portrait Gallery in London.
In the other direction, Mr. Bachardy said in the interview that Mr. Isherwood “never started a new process without asking my opinion on practically every issue.” He also came up with the titles for many of Mr. Isherwood’s books, including “A Single Man” and “Christopher and His Kind.”
But, Mr. Bachardy added, it was “necessary” for his personal and artistic development to have other lovers, too. “It was important to me psychologically,” he said. “I needed to gain more confidence in other areas and hang on to all the confidence in each other that we shared.”
Kevin Clarke, another of the exhibition’s curators, said that many gay and lesbian people today have more traditional attitudes to sexual exclusivity. “Four years ago, Out magazine did an issue on young gay couples who said, ‘I’d never tolerate my partner having sex with somebody else.’”
Mr. Clarke said he looked at these couples, “fresh out of a wedding magazine, and thought, ‘That’s so naïve to think it’d possibly work.’ Not because they’re gay — because monogamy doesn’t work for heterosexuals either, most of the time.” Everyone, regardless of sexual inclination, could learn from Mr. Isherwood and Mr. Bachardy’s example, he said.
David Hockney, who arrived in Los Angeles from London in 1964 carrying a letter of introduction from Mr. Isherwood’s close friend, the writer Stephen Spender, said in a text message that he had been “very impressed” with Mr. Isherwood and Mr. Bachardy’s relationship. The three became friends and Mr. Hockney attended dinner parties at their home for many years, he said.
In 1968, Mr. Hockney painted a famous double portrait of the pair. In the painting, the two are seated in wicker armchairs in the living room of their home: Mr. Bachardy looks directly ahead, while Mr. Isherwood is turned toward his partner. A lithograph made several years later, in which their gazes are reversed, is featured at the show in Berlin.
“Don was away in London, for quite a while, having a scene with Anthony Page,” Mr. Hockney recalled, referring to the British theater director whom Mr. Bachardy was involved with at the time. (In Mr. Bachardy’s absence, Mr. Hockney painted his face from photographs, said Ms. Bucknell, the curator.)
“It took Chris many years before he would speak to Anthony again,” Mr. Hockney added. Mr. Isherwood and Mr. Bachardy both endured bouts of jealousy and insecurity throughout their relationship, according to Ms. Bucknell.
Perhaps because of this, some biographers and literary critics have framed the relationship’s open nature negatively, as something the couple made it through, rather than as a key element of their love’s longevity. Mr. Bachardy said this part of it had been “willfully” misunderstood. “People will think in old-fashioned ways, resisting any alteration of their views,” he said.
The writer Edmund White said that having multiple partners was quite common for gay men in the 1960s and ’70s. “Everybody was non-monogamous back then,” Mr. White said in an interview at the exhibition’s opening. “If everyone is civil and not too possessive, it works out,” he said.
Mr. White said he met the pair in New York in the 1970s, through the composer Virgil Thomson. Mr. Isherwood was “always laughing,” he recalled: “We’d be in the car and he’d lie down on the back seat. I’d say, ‘Why are you lying down?’ and he’d say, ‘I can’t stand Don’s driving. I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to see it.’”
This playful tone comes through in the couple’s letters, a selection of which are presented as recordings at the Schwules Museum, read by Simon Callow and Alan Cumming. In the letters, Mr. Isherwood and Mr. Bachardy adopt animal personas: the former as an old workhorse, and the latter as a skittish kitten.
Mr. Bachardy said that the last 10 years of his relationship with Mr. Isherwood were the best, adding that their connection deepened with age.
“He had gold in him and he wanted to share it with me,” Mr. Bachardy said. “When you love like he did, you have to find somebody who you can give as much as you can to. Somebody who can absorb it, and ask for more.”
My Dear Sweet Love: Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy
Through August 26 at the Schwules Museum, Berlin; schwulesmuseum.de