Mirka Mora was one of Melbourne’s best-known and loved artists. She was a painter, designer, muralist and textile sculptor, and worked in many media, producing paintings, drawings and designs, usually based on fantasy using a folk or naïve and primitive style.
Aside from her artistic career, Mirka Mora was considered by many as a national treasure. She was regarded as a true Australian identity known for her infectious joie de vivre and quirky, humourous and bohemian character.
Mirka was born in Paris, France on 18 March 1928. When she was 17, she undertook mime and drama studies in Paris from 1945 to 1947. Her first drama teacher was the great mime artist Marcel Marceau, who would later perform in Melbourne and visit Mirka at her future restaurant “Tolarno’s”.
In 1947 when she was 18, Mirka met her future husband Georges Mora (1919-1998), 15 years her senior and a former Foreign Legionnaire who had supported the Resistance. Georges was then head of the orphan organisation that employed Mirka.
Although they survived the war, the Mora’s feared that the peace of the Cold War would not last and were keen to leave Europe. Mirka was obsessive in pursuing her inspiration to get to Melbourne after reading of Antoine Fauchery, the photographer, whose colourful life is depicted in the novel Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. Fauchery had returned to Paris in 1858, having travelled across Victoria, vividly recording Gippsland aboriginals in full ceremonial paint, the excitement of gold panning at Castlemaine and early waterfront Melbourne.
When she was 23, Mirka and Georges immigrated to Melbourne in 1951 with their young son, Phillipe. By this time Mirka’s interest had moved from theatre to painting. The Mora’s first lived in rural McKinnon. From there they discovered at 9 Collins Street, the former studios of artists Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, John Longstaff, Jane Sutherland and Ola Cohn. The Mora’s moved in and lived happily in this, the ‘Paris’ end of Collins Street, for 15 years (now demolished, except for its facade). It was a time when few people lived in the city and their home became a centre of cultural life in Melbourne.
Georges managed a noodle factory and Mirka made money as a dressmaker. The art patron Sunday Reed commissioned a dress from Mora, which led to a long friendship with her and her husband John Reed who were well known for their art patronage. The Mora’s were regular visitors to the Reed’s house “Heide” at Bulleen, which was also frequently visited by other artists including Charles and Barbara Blackman, Barrett Reid, John Perceval, Laurence Hope, Arthur Boyd and Joy Hester.
Over time Mirka and Georges contributed to Melbourne’s transformation from a quiet, provincial town to a sophisticated, multicultural city. In 1954 they helped bring European-style dining to Melbourne with the opening of the Mirka Café at 183 Exhibition Street, on the corner of Little Bourke Street, opposite both Her Majesty’s and the Comedy theatres. The Mirka Café was probably the first French café in Melbourne and the first to put chairs and tables on the footpath, the advent of alfresco dining in Melbourne.
In 1954 the Contemporary Art Society was re-born upstairs from the café, with Georges Mora acting as president and John Reed as director. The CAS organised art exhibitions for the Royal visit of Queen Elizabeth II, in opposition to the official exhibition in Melbourne’s Town Hall.
In 1956, the CAS Gallery of Contemporary Art opened in an old warehouse in Tavistock Place, behind Fletcher Jones. Early exhibitions included works by Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, Laurence Daws, Robert Dickerson, Joy Hester, Roger Kemp, John Perceval, Clifton Pugh and Edwin Tanner.
Success at Mirka’s Café led to a need for larger premises and a better restaurant. In 1958 “Balzac” at 62 Wellington Parade, East Melbourne was opened with Charles Blackman and Georges Mora doing the cooking. It was the first restaurant in Victoria to obtain a license allowing alcohol to be served with meals until 10pm. Balzac survived until 2001, Victoria’s oldest licensed restaurant.
In 1965, when the demolition of 9 Collins Street was imminent, “Balzac” was sold and Georges bought the Tolarno Hotel in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda. With conversions, the building became the Tolarno French Bistro, Gallery and Hotel, functioning as a hotel, restaurant, gallery, family home for the Mora’s and an artist studio for Mirka.
Mirka painted her now famous murals on the restaurant walls and with the young artist Martin Sharp from Sydney, climbing roses on the windows and doors of the restaurant. In 1956 the Tolarno was St. Kilda’s first art gallery and the suburb’s first restaurant to serve fine food. Georges and Mirka made the bistro and gallery one of the most famous places in Melbourne and an integral part of the city’s cultural and culinary history, remaining one of Melbourne’s trendiest French bistro’s for decades.
A series of remarkable art exhibitions were held at Tolarno. The Sidney Nolan Ned Kelly series was shown there. Each year, Georges travelled to Paris returning with unique shows for Melbourne, including drawings and prints of French masters such as: Renoir, Toulouse Lautrec, Picasso, Chagall, Vuillard and Bonnard. The local artwork shown was cutting edge.
Eventually, the management of the hotel became too onerous for the Mora’s and it was sold. The Mora family moved their bedrooms and studio to the basement.
In 1970 the Mora’s marriage crumbled and Mirka moved into Wellington Street, around the corner. From the 1970’s Mirka created soft sculptures and appliquéd reliefs of doll-like figures.
Mirka later moved to Rankins Lane in the city (1978-1981), returned to St Kilda to 116 Barkly Street and finally to a remarkable new building in Tanner Street, Richmond that she shared with her son, William and his family, where William operated the William Mora Gallery and Mirka had her studio. The William Mora Gallery shows indigenous and innovative young artists.
Mirka’s other sons live in Los Angeles. Phillipe is a film director and Tiriel, an actor. In 1973, the young filmmaker Paul Cox made a short biographical film ‘Mirka’.
In the late 1970s, Tolarno was sold. Georges built a new pink Tolarno Gallery in River Street, South Yarra. The other Tolarno Gallery continued in Fitzroy Street and an initial altercation between the two Tolarno’s over the use of the name was settled. After Georges died, his partner, Jan Minchin relocated Tolarno Galleries to Victoria Street, Fitzroy, and most recently to Flinders Lane in the city. So, there continued to be two Tolarno’s.
During her artistic career Mirka presented around 35 solo exhibitions from 1956. Her 50 years of creative energy resulted in a prolific output of work across a range of media – drawing, painting, embroidery, soft sculpture, mosaics and doll making.
Mirka’s colourful, sensuous iconography emerged from a broad range of interests and reading, a love of classical mythology, a desire to reclaim and make sense of childhood and familial relations, and recognition of the power of sexual desire.
Mirka’s numerous public artworks including mosaic and paint murals at Flinders Street Station and a mosaic for the pavilion on St Kilda Pier based on the view in that direction, from her former home in Barkly Street (now destroyed). Mirka was also one of a group of artists appointed to decorate the exteriors of Melbourne trams.
In 1999, a major retrospective of 50 years of Mirka Mora’s art was held at Heide Museum of Modern Art, the Reeds’ former house. In 2000 her autobiography, “Mirka Mora. Wicked but Virtuous. A Life” was published by Pengiun. In 2003 Mirka’s second book, “Love and Clutter” was also published by Penguin. In 2001, Mirka Lane was named, off Barkly Street, near to where she lived. In 2002, Mirka was made Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.
Commissioned pieces and representation of Mirka Mora’s work can be seen at the: Art Gallery of Western Australia, Ararat Regional Gallery in Victoria, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Sydney, Museum of Modern Art at Heide, Melbourne, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Performing Arts Museum at the Victoria Arts Centre in Melbourne, Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland University of Technology Art Collection in Brisbane; Myer Collection; Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute, Melbourne; National Australia Bank, Melbourne; Council for Adult Education, Melbourne; Federation Tapestry, Melbourne Museum; St Kilda Pier Entrance Pavilion; Bennelong, National Theatre Trust, Sydney; Cosmos Bookshop, Melbourne; Flinders Street Station, Melbourne; Adelaide Festival Centre; Perth Festival; Ayr Community Library, Queensland; Burdekin Library & Theatre, Sydney; Balzac Restaurant, Melbourne; Tolarno Restaurant, Melbourne; The Bacchae & Medea, Playbox Theatre, Melbourne; Painted Tram, Victorian Ministry of the Arts, Melbourne; Christmas stamp designs, Australia Post; and numerous private collections in Australia and overseas.
Mirka Mora passed away on 27 August, 2018.