A few years back I worked at Heide Museum of Modern Art. Each morning I would visit Mirka’s painted glass mural in the sunroom at the Heide farmhouse gallery, the light was diaphanous; gone once the sun reached the top of the world. It was cool at this time of day as the windows faced westerly, the crisp air providing clarity. I would think about what each of the mural symbols meant to me, I knew what they meant to her. Mirka’s art is often regarded through a lens of shared identification and experience, creating a feeling of connectedness. I want to tell her story with honesty; the way she lived.Nicole Cullinan
Mirka Mora (1928 – 2018) was born in Paris to a Lithuanian Jewish father and a Romanian Jewish mother. I reflect on why Mirka was not awarded an Australia Day Honour or Queen’s Birthday Honour. So great has been the outpouring of grief over her passing. Her life was destined to be extraordinary, although she was born ordinary and narrowly escaped death in a concentration camp as a teenager. At age sixteen, she read Scenes de la Vie de Boheme by Henri Murger, a novel that spawned the famous Opera; La Boheme by Puccini. It is the story of a photographer who had travelled across Victoria, and it prompted her to board a 305 aeroplane in 1951 destined for Melbourne. She was with her husband Georges and her first-born son Phillipe.
Mirka’s life was laden with loving stories of random acts of silliness; many supercharged with sexuality. The time she cut little holes in her dress over her nipples and then cheekily regarded the restaurant patrons’ reactions. On another occasion, she went to the bathroom and returned without the slip under her dress, revealing a beautiful naked body; thinly veiled by fabric. The day she went to the shops with no underwear, the wind caught her dress. The time she walked out into the ocean fully clothed, hat bopping atop the water. She was brave and made the everyday act of living a celebration.
Mirka’s artwork was inspired by both her new life and her old. An example of this is the lovers featured prominently in her artwork as an intertwined pair. Sometimes her lovers reminded her of a mother and son she saw on the train to the concentration camp Pithiviers. “They always held each other, all the time, then they would walk in the camp holding each other,” said Mirka. This melancholy admission just hung in the air silently. But then, moments later, her joie de vivre can be seen, and she states the lovers can also be her children. “I think of them and my children when they were in my arms. I’d give anything now to have them one afternoon, little, and just holding them, you don’t know what it is, this tenderness,” said Mirka.
A year after arriving in Melbourne, Mirka and Georges moved to Grosvenor Chambers at 9 Collins Street, an already famous address. It was a custom-built art studio building where many favourite artists had resided, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, and Ola Cohn, to name a few. They quickly settled into a bohemian lifestyle and lived a very liberated life, often hosting parties. They had already experienced so much fear that being so free was likely a relief. Artists and like-minded creatives surrounded them. “The atmosphere could be scooped up with a spoon,” she said. As the studio was such a bustling, busy place with all the visiting artists, Mirka occasionally would go next door to the Windsor and take a room, just for some peace. She lived in Grosvenor Chambers with her family for sixteen years and had two more children, William in 1953 and Tiriel in 1958.
In 1954 the Moras opened Mirka Cafe on Exhibition street; Mirka attracted bohemians to this place: like bees to honey. “They were crazy about my Mum,” recalls son Phillipe. Mirka Cafe was a hotbed of artistic talent, including anybody except Sidney Nolan, who had left Melbourne for good in 1947. Mirka Cafe hosted the first art exhibitions of Joy Hester and Charles Blackman. Georges and Mirka opened a second restaurant in 1957, Balzac, as Mirka Cafe was overrun with patrons, and John Perceval would sit in the window and smoke while Charles Blackman was employed as a cook.
During the 1950s, artists were poor, and paint was expensive. Arthur Boyd would make his paint, and one day; he gave the colour to his fellow artists. “I was so honoured to be given the paint. One day he gave a tube to Blackman, Perceval, and Mirka. He treats me equal to the boys, such a boy (Arthur Boyd), a rare man.” Mirka retells this story in the third person as an outsider looking in at a beautiful scene, a scene she had replayed many times in her mind, the joy it brought her to be treated as an equal.
Mirka had her first exhibition in 1956, followed by thirty-five more over the next six decades. She spent long hours painting; her style represented both figurative and abstract art. Her works incorporated many forms of media, including drawing, embroidery, soft sculpture, mosaics, and doll making.
In 1966 Mirka and her family moved to the Tolarno Hotel in St Kilda; it was their private residence, an Art Gallery, and Café. It was also the last home she shared with Georges. After 23 years of marriage, Georges and Mirka separated in 1970, citing extramarital affairs on both sides; he began within a year of arriving in Australia and hers sometime later. During this time, Mirka painted the murals at Tolarno Hotel for some years after the separation, one of the most beautiful examples of her art; it incorporates many elements of her colourist and symbolist painting style. Large angels and serpents can be seen as many other symbols: birds, rabbits, flowers, and the sun. Angels represent love, and serpents represent sex. “My work is about the angels and the serpents fighting; sometimes they are happy together, and sometimes they fight together,” said Mirka.
Over her lifetime, she was an avid reader, enjoying history and philosophy, and she believed books allowed her to understand life better. She had a way of taking her thoughts out of the book and into the everyday. She was particularly fond of Freud, who believed in the importance of the unconscious mind and the power of sexuality. His writings teach that having a mixture of love and hate in close relationships is a part of nature. Mirka said later in life “that the affair with Georges never ended.” Because the opposite of love is not hating, it is indifference, and I propose Mirka did not feel this towards Georges.
Mirka had become well-known to the public by the early 1970s. She had held exhibitions at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, hosted by John and Sunday Reed, and had several showings at the Tolarno Galleries. In 1971 she exhibited her dolls at Realities Gallery Toorak, and the people loved them. Following that, Mirka had a series of erotic charcoal drawings appear in Vogue. Mirka had grown and become nationally recognised; Melbournians had to share her. She also began teaching at the Council for Adult Education (CAE), an association that lasted 23 years and conducted workshops in Australia, France, the USA, and Japan. During her lifetime, she taught everyone, from children to jail inmates.
Whilst at the CAE, she was awarded a Sir Zelman Cowan Award for contributing to adult education. Her peers were receiving awards too. In 1970 Arthur Boyd was awarded The Order of the British Empire (OBE), and in 1977 Charles Blackman was awarded an OBE.
In 1978, twenty-seven years after Mirka arrived in Melbourne and the year she turned fifty, she met Sidney Nolan whilst he was visiting Australia. She had attended an exhibition at the National Gallery and needed a rest, so she stepped through a doorway into an empty room, naked of paintings. Moments later, Sidney Nolan entered the room and they immediately recognised each other. Finally, they met, having been connected by many intimate friendships for so long. This handsome man entranced Mirka. “I was very honoured. It was the most seductive handshake I have ever had in my life, and I’ve had a lot of handshakes. His hand in my hand said everything. His was a novel, you know, a great novel.” I am very moved; she was still connected to her sexuality, just like other women of a certain age and me. The simplicity of a handshake stirring such strong emotions is a fleeting moment that passes but will always be remembered for how it made her feel. Not everything of meaning is a grand gesture. Life comprises a series of little moments we notice or ignore.
Reading and listening to Mirka’s interviews throughout her life, she repeatedly returned to a few keywords. She often recounted what a blessed life she had. She was fortunate to miss Auschwitz. Lucky to have the hands of a child. Lucky to be a painter and lucky to paint every day. Her use of the word luck forms part of her Australian identity. The French word for luck is chance; it’s good luck, sa bonne chance. Many French words are the same in English, and when I listen to Mirka, I hear that overwhelmingly she doesn’t change from the French word except for luck. She didn’t say, ‘it was by chance I missed Auschwitz’.
Another word that Mirka continually returned to was an honour, the same in French and English. It was an honour to meet Sidney Nolan. It was an honour to receive a tube of paint from Arthur Boyd. It was an honour to have a book published about her and Georges. Honour was something she considered to be necessary. She was a person of integrity and right-mindedness who referenced honour throughout her interviews yet appeared to be frivolous and fun, always maintaining the child.
During the 1980s, Mirka was a very busy artist and a recognisable personality on Melbourne streets. In 1986 she completed a significant mural at Flinders street station. This mural speaks to her professionalism and her commitment to the Australian public. It combined mosaic and painting and took approximately a year to complete. It is a mural for everyone, combining symbols unique to her; and some notable additions, like koalas. It is very inclusive and representative of our nation’s people.
At this time, her peers continued to receive honours. Sidney Nolan was highly decorated with a Knight Bachelor in 1981, followed by an order of Merit (OM) in 1983. He rounded out the decade with a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 1988. In 1991 it was John Perceval’s turn with an Officer of the Order of Australia, and then in 2008, David Boyd was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM). Mirka’s turn never arrived.
Women make up approximately one-third of Australia Day honours, which is slowly changing. Furthermore, historical quantitative data indicates migrants are underrepresented in the allocation of benefits. It is disappointing that Mirka was not formally recognised during her lifetime. A woman who made meaningful strides in developing contemporary art in Australia over sixty years. She enriched our cultural and creative landscape. She dedicated decades to educating others in art, and her works are held in galleries worldwide.
In 2002 Mirka was awarded one of France’s highest artistic honours, Officier des Arts et des Lettres. The award was presented by her long-time family friend Marcel Marceau. He stated, “This award is not just a title; it is recognition of what she has given to her country; Australia, to her country of origin; France, and the world in general.” But the ‘big time’ Australian honours were not to be the order of the day for Mirka; she died on August 27th, 2018.
Mirka loved unconditionally and produced insane art, three sons, and a nation of daughters. She deserved more than she was given. Nostalgia has me returning to the farmhouse. It is late in the day; the glass is warm to the touch, and the sun is setting. I can hear her voice, “I love life so much, and I love all the problems as well; people are the best thing in the world.”