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Wicked but Virtuous

by Faith Stellmaker, 9 November 2022

Mirka - 9 Collins Street
Mirka - 9 Collins Street, c. 1966 (printed 2015) Lazar Krum

Mirka Mora’s influence on Australia’s cultural and culinary scene both as a contemporary artist and one of Melbourne’s most loved restaurateurs remains widely felt today. Born in Paris, Mirka immigrated to Australia with her husband Georges and their son Philippe in 1951, settling in East Melbourne and becoming deeply entangled within the local art scene. Portraits of Mirka in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection show the multifaceted span of the artist’s career, capturing her zest for life and dynamic personality.

In photographer Lazar Krum’s portrait Mirka 9 Collins Street (c. 1966), the artist stands in front of one of her distinctive murals at her inner city studio/home. Taken about 15 years after immigrating to Melbourne, Krum provides us with a snapshot of Mirka’s life. Behind the artist we can just make out a mural with the interwoven motifs of angels, wide-eyed children, animals and hybrid creatures that became iconic symbols of her practice. Drawing from memories of childhood innocence, cut short by the outbreak of the Second World War and a narrow escape from Auschwitz, Mirka’s works unpack love and loss, and celebrate humanity and resilience. As Krum has suggested, his image ‘captured Mirka, in the midst of her iconic faces, caught between both the delightful and ominous nature of her life experience’.

Soon after their arrival in Melbourne, Mirka and Georges moved into an empty sculptor’s studio in Collins Street. They became involved in the revival of the Contemporary Art Society, befriending art patrons John and Sunday Reed and members of the Heide group including Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, Joy Hester, John Perceval, Charles and Barbara Blackman. Defying rigid social norms and behaviours, the Reeds championed a break from the traditions of artistic conservatism, encouraging the experimental and modernist work of the Heide circle. Mirka’s love for Paris, cosmopolitan ideas and European style were infectious, and she and her husband were quickly absorbed into the avant-garde group.

Mirka’s charisma, generosity and charm created the perfect environment for Mirka Café, which the couple opened in 1954 on 185 Exhibition Street. Introducing European-style dining to 1950s Melbourne – the Moras were pioneers in introducing outside seating to the urban environment and their café was allegedly the first to sell espresso machine coffee – Mirka Café became a hub for artists, collectors, writers and other well-known figures. Due to its popularity, the café soon outgrew its location and in 1956 Mirka and Georges opened Café Balzac in Wellington Street, East Melbourne. The first restaurant in Victoria to receive a 10pm liquor license, the Balzac became known for hosting leading modernist artists and their works, including John Perceval’s infamous angel series which the Moras commissioned for the walls of their restaurant. The Moras sold the Balzac in the late 1960s, and subsequently bought the Tolarno Hotel in St Kilda, opening the Tolarno French Bistro and later Tolarno Galleries, which became a major landmark for the progression of modern and contemporary Australian art. The Tolarno also housed the couple, their three sons Philippe, William and Tiriel, as well as a large studio space for Mirka.

Embracing a modern lifestyle outside the boundaries of prescribed gender roles, Mirka assisted with the running of the restaurant, while juggling her artistic career and raising their children. She hand-painted the walls of the Tolarno bistro, hallway and bathrooms with whimsical and colourful large-scale murals, featuring her characteristic fantastical beings inspired by fairytales, Eastern European folk art, classical mythology, childhood memories and her active imagination. In a society deeply rooted in misogyny, she used textiles and craft to create quintessentially feminine works that employed traditions of craft making and unconventional modes of making, integrating textiles, soft-sculpture dolls, mosaics, works on paper and paintings. Although Mirka took a non-political stance towards feminism, her works subsequently challenged the hierarchy of western art historical discourse that favoured painting and sculpture as visual mediums.

Controversial at a time when Australia’s social landscape was stiflingly conservative, Mirka led a bohemian lifestyle that was culturally and socially rebellious. Throughout their marriage, both Mirka and Georges were romantically and sexually involved with various love interests. Although they separated in the 1970s, in Mirka’s memoir My Life: Wicked but Virtuous, published in 2000, she stated that ‘The affair with Georges never ended and lasted 51 years’. Taken while she was preparing paintings to accompany the launch of her memoir, Greg Weight’s photograph pictures Mirka in the new flat her son William built for her at his gallery in Richmond. As Weight reflected in his book Australian Artists (2004), her studio ‘was filled with books, soft toys, dolls houses and in among it all, or because of it all, the creative process continued … Mirka Mora has her own timeless quality. Maybe it is her art that keeps her so young … “After all,” she said, “lovers, they may come and go, but our art, that will never leave us. It’s all we really have.”’

1 Mirka Mora, 1983 Andrew Sibley. © Andrew Sibley/Copyright Agency, 2024. 2 Mirka by Mirka, 2000 Mirka Mora. © Mirka Mora/Copyright Agency, 2024, Currently on display.

Mirka’s energy and mischievous personality is expressed in Andrew Sibley’s 1983 drawing of his friend; four years later his doll-like portrait of Mirka was a finalist in the Archibald Prize. In contrast, Mirka by Mirka (2000), a self portrait created when she was in her early seventies, is tinted with a touch of melancholy, perhaps related to her sadness at leaving behind her life and beloved cottage in St Kilda to move into the Richmond flat. As Sandra Bruce noted, ‘this self portrait depicts Mora with the youthful looks for which she was known so well. Despite this, there is a sense of age and quiet to the portrait; the palette of subdued earth tones, and the treatment of the eyes particularly, give the sense that Mora approached this work from a point of introspection.’

While Mirka died in 2018 at the age of 90, her prolific career over six decades is reflected in her representation in public and private collections, and her murals and mosaics can still be seen today throughout Melbourne – at the Tolarno Bistro and Hotel, at the St Kilda Library, St Kilda Pier and Flinders Street Station, among many others. A pioneering figure for modern art, Mirka’s idiosyncratic personality, bohemian lifestyle, culinary endeavours and introduction of café culture has left a lasting legacy on Melbourne’s cultural identity.

Related people

Mirka Mora

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