The much loved Parisian-born artist Mirka Mora died today in Melbourne at age 90. She had been at the centre of Melbourne’s creative life since her arrival in 1951. She and her then husband, the late Georges Mora, quickly became part of Melbourne’s artist scene and were friends with art patrons, the Heide founders John and Sunday Reed (around whom the Angry Penguin group had emerged in the 1940) and artists Charles and Barbara Blackman, John Perceval, Laurence Hope, Arthur Boyd and Joy Hester and poet Barrett Reid.
The Moras and Reeds developed the progressive art venues in the Gallery of Contemporary Art (1956–57) and its successor, the Museum of Modern Art and Design of Australia (1958–66) in Melbourne. The Moras also established the eateries Mirka Café in Exhibition Street in 1954, Café Balzac, East Melbourne in 1957 and Tolarno Bistro, St Kilda in 1965.
“Mirka’s 50 years of creative energy have resulted in a prolific output of work across a range of media – drawing, painting, embroidery, soft sculpture, mosaics and doll-making,” her biography states on the website of her art dealer (and son) William Mora Galleries. “Her colourful, sensuous iconography has emerged from the breadth of her interests and reading, her love of classical mythology, her desire to reclaim and make sense of childhood and familial relations, and her recognition of the power of sexual desire,” it says. She is survived by William and his brothers, filmmaker Philippe and actor Tiriel and grandchildren.
Below, her friend and sometime colleague, Carrillo Gantner (she designed sets and costumes as well as the bar at Playbox Theatre in Exhibition Street where he was artistic director in the 1970s and 1980s) describes Mirka and the enormous affection she and her art elicted from those who came into her orbit.
This is an extracted forward to the forthcoming book Mirka Mora, A life of Making Art by Sabine Cotte, published by Thames and Hudson Australia due for release in 2019.
“You cannot help but fall in love with Mirka. Everyone who meets her or stands before her work feels the sense of joy and of life lived to the max”
Many years ago my wife and I were sitting with Mirka in the café at the Australian National Gallery. In Canberra. I asked her to tell me the story of her miraculous escape at age 13 from the train heading to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. She started to relate how she wrote a note with the names of the stations she was passing on a scrap of paper addressed to her father in Paris and pushed it out through a crack in the cattle truck in which she was being transported. Someone picked it up and sent it on to her father who worked out where she was headed. He bribed the Nazi authorities and she was released at the gates of Auschwitz with the eyes of the inmates staring out at her through the barbed wire. Then in the midst of the café crowd, Mirka burst into wild, incongruous laughter.
Those large round eyes staring out at her are there in so many of her paintings and other works. So is her laughter in the face of death and in her commitment to the outrageous and colourful miracle of life. You cannot help but fall in love with Mirka. Everyone who meets her or stands before her work feels the sense of joy and of life lived to the max. If Australia had National Living Treasures as they do in Japan, Mirka Mora would undoubtedly be one of ours.
Mirka always said that my mother bought the very first painting she ever sold, and many others in the decades that followed. They remained the closest of friends and I grew up with regular injections of her art, her delicious French accent and delicious French cooking, her laughter and her occasional behavioural extremes. She always managed to put herself at the epicentre of attention, punching her fist into my 40th birthday cake, grabbing my hand and jumping into the swimming pool fully clothed at a polite Toorak party, turning a thank you speech at a Town Hall dinner in her honour into a dissertation on the delights of the clitoris, or hoisting her hospital gown to show me and her delighted hospital roommates her generous surgical scar and so much more.
For my mother, Mirka represented the freedom of the artist’s life that she wished she herself might have led were it not for family pressures and social convention. For my children, Mirka almost came from another world, bearing the pleasures of surprise and fantasy. She would draw some strange creature for them and inspire them to repay the favour with their own imaginative scribbles. They loved her. Absolutely everyone loved her, whether they were children or elderly students at her Adult Education classes who imagined once again that they just might be.
First and always foremost, Mirka was an artist. She loved to paint or build soft creatures or embroider pictures or set mosaics. Every day of her life she worked tirelessly at her art, always sketching or pulling out her watercolours or researching images in ancient art books, always with the intensity of someone who treasured life and valued time. Even as she grew old, she told me that she had to work at her easel for hours every day, summoning mythological angels, animals, birds and plants in vivid colours. And always there were those eyes.
Mirka has written books about her own extraordinary life. Now Sabine Cotte comes to Mirka’s enormous body of work from an entirely different angle, examining and interpreting in detail the use and meaning of her sophisticated and diverse methods and materials. This is an invaluable work of scholarship that enriches our understanding of the life and creative career of an extraordinary Australian artist. I feel very blessed to have known Mirka for most of my life up close and in all her colourful glory.
Carrillo Gantner AO