Migrations, personal journeys: Michael Rosen

Michael Rosen portrait

Michael Rosen

Broadcaster, children’s novelist and poet

This exhibition interests me because it addresses one of my favourite topics – ‘interculturalism’. People have always migrated, whether it has been to escape persecution or poverty or to exchange ideas. We should get away from the notion of host and migrant. Cultures mix and we should celebrate that. The thing we call British art has always been influenced by art from outside and the people who have come here. That is the point. That is how we get great art.

Jakob Bogdani Exotic Birds and a Cornish Chough in a Park Landscape c.1700

Room: Portraiture and New Genres

I think people who paint exotic birds might think that they want to end up being an exotic bird. I love that the Cornish chough is sitting there amongst all these colourful exotic birds. Of course, many animals – like rabbits and pheasants – that we think of as native to the British Isles are actually migrants.

Nathaniel Dance-Holland James Grant, John Mytton, Thomas Robinson and Thomas Wynn in front of the Colosseum in Rome 1760

Room: Italy, Neoclassicism and the Royal Academy

These paintings seem so English, yet they could not exist without foreign influence. Like Shakespeare – you think of him as being quintessentially English yet he must either have been to Italy or immersed himself in Italian literature. His plays are written in Latinate blank verse and many of them are set there.

David Bomberg The Mud Bath 1914

Room: Jewish Artists and Jewish Art

Oh, the baths, the shvitz (the ‘sweat’ in Yiddish). My father would tell a wonderful story about when he went to the shvitz as a child. He used to hear these old guys shouting, ‘A leetle bit more hot water in number three plizz’, from the slipper baths and then a sigh of ‘ahhhh’ as the taps were turned on. He was still doing that performance for me in the last years of his life. The bathhouse in Hackney is now a Vietnamese restaurant.

David Bomberg, ‘The Mud Bath’ 1914
David Bomberg
The Mud Bath 1914
© Tate

Jacob Epstein Euphemia Lamb 1908

Room: Jewish Artists and Jewish Art

Epstein is interesting for me because he hangs out with British poets. Free verse, the dominant form of poetry today, was invented in a café in 1909 by TE Hulme, Pound and Epstein. They were the pioneers of modernist poetry and art. I am interested in the connections you can make between art, poetry and music of this era.

Sir Jacob Epstein, ‘Euphemia Lamb’ 1908
Sir Jacob Epstein
Euphemia Lamb 1908
© The estate of Sir Jacob Epstein

Piet Mondrian Composition with Yellow, Blue and Red 1937–42

Room: Refugees from Nazi Europe

I think Mondrian’s work is about rhythm. I always say to children if you think of that space between the lines as time, and every time you hit a line you make a noise, then you can perform the rhythm of the painting.

Black Audio Film Collective Handsworth Songs 1986

Room: New Diasporic Voices

Here there is a direct analogy in the poetry of James Berry and John Agard. Their experience in verse mirrors what these artists are tackling visually. Benjamin Zephaniah is from Handsworth and is writing about these experiences too.

Francis Alÿs Railings 2004

Room: The Moving Image

Another work about rhythm. See how I turn everything into poetry! I like the childlike way this artist hits his stick on the railings. Children can get the rhythm out of the environment.