Brexit, Trump: you’d think you could get away from them in events about people who lived four decades or four centuries ago, but you can’t. Whether you’re talking about the last Scottish king to die a violent death (keep up at the back, it’s obviously Charles I) or Picasso, there’s no hiding place.
Oldest first. It was snowing on 30 January, 1649 when our last Dunfermline-born king got axed, and it was still falling so heavily when they carried his coffin into Windsor Chapel that its black velvet covering turned white. But this was only fitting: Charles had worn white when he married his French child-bride Henrietta Maria, and white is the colour of innocence and martyrdom, the reason his supporters called him the White King.
Fake news, said Leanda de Lisle (OK, she actually only said “fake history”). The white stuff only came into the historical record in accounts written by a monarchist writing after the Restoration, when Charles’s son had taken the British throne and historians had a vested interest in making facts square with legends.
Her own talk managed to show both how different the 17th century was to our own age and yet how similar too. Charles’s brother Henry, for example, died of TB despite having a dead pigeon strapped to his head. Yet if science has advanced, some irrational prejudices remain: you have only, she said, to look at Wonder Woman’s nemesis, the facially injured Doctor Poison, to realise that and the equation drawn 400 years ago between deformity (or traits such as Charles I’s weak legs and stutter) and evil still hasn’t gone away.
Although the Scots were key players in kick-starting the English parliament’s war against Charles I, and the rule was usually that “where the Scots led, the English followed”, Scots were aghast the king was actually executed. De Lisle didn’t quite add “like over Brexit vote”, but she didn’t need to: the whole story she outlines in her book The White King, was “one that speaks very much to our divided and changing times”.
So indeed, does Picasso’s Guernica. Here was an artist who, although a Communist, declared that he would never paint art for one political party or another. Yet the Spanish civil war forced him to change his mind. His friend, the poet Lorca, had been assassinated; the Prado, of which he was director in exile, had been bombed; the Francoist General Millan-Astray was making speeches ending: “Death to intelligence! Long live Death.” So when the Basque town of Guernica was bombed, said James Attlee, Picasso could no longer remain neutral.
Already, though, he had drawn a series of postcards mocking the general leading the rebel army. The Dream and Lies of Franco, he called it. “If he were alive today,” said Attlee, “he’d probably be working on The Dream and Lies of Trump.”
There is innocence as well as death in the painting, as Picasso’s grandson Olivier Widmaier Picasso pointed out. As a baby, his aunt recognised her mother on its canvas, and ran towards it shouting out “Mama!”
Picasso – whom he never met – “drew every last drop of blood out of the women in his life, at least he made them immortal”, his grandson said. And because he painted his common-law wife Marie-Therese Walter so repeatedly, Olivier can go into galleries throughout the world and see paintings of his (often naked) gran.
So long ago that he can’t rememember, when Jim Broadbent was between acting jobs, he started work on a film script. It took as its starting point a hellish woman he’d seen in the Breughel painting Dulle Griet, turning her into a largely wordless eel-fisherwoman in a drab landscape based on the marshy shores of his native Lincolnshire. When no-one was interested, he got in touch with the artist Dix and together they turned it into a graphic novel.
Dull Margaret, the book is called, and the event matched the adjective perfectly. No matter how great an actor Broadbent is, or how hard Dix has tried to bring its ultra-bleak mood to life, the story’s slightness couldn’t stand the weight of a full hour’s attention.
Was it, they were asked, a tale for our times (the Brexit/Trump question)? No. Was it an attempt to come to terms with issues of gender? Not really. Has Broadbent developed a taste for writing? No again. Did the voice come easily? Quite easily, yes (Broadbent). Was it hard to discover the style? No. “It’s like the stuff I do anyway. It’s fairly miserable and dull so it plays into my hands.” (Dix)
By the time someone asked if the two men liked eels, it should have been time to call it a day, but there were still five desperately dull minutes left.