Tolarno’s, a St.Kilda gastronomic institution for many decades of loyal customers gathered regularly to partake the bonhomie and Mirka Mora murals which festooned the walls with ducks, serpents, floral and doll-like motifs.
One of Australia’s best-loved artist, Mirka Mora has passed this week, aged 90, much to the distress of the visual art community. Her work has been revered, enjoyed and collected for as long as Mirka has been creating it. Mirka, one of Melbourne’s most famous bohemians, transformed the culture of her adopted home town since emigrating to Australia in the 1950s from war-torn France.
“Art is the child of the imagination and gives life”, Mirka famously uttered.
Throughout Mirka’s life, art was a constant. Her sensuous, cherubic figures — described by one 1960s art critic as ‘medieval imps’ — are instantly recognisable. Mirka created a prolific output of work spanning across six decades, with a range of media including drawing, painting, embroidery, soft sculpture, mosaics and doll-making.
Mirka Mora with her Soft Sculptures, August 29, 1979. Image Courtesy: Fairfax Media.
With more than 35 solo exhibitions throughout her career, including a retrospective at Heide Museum of Art in 1999-2000, celebrated 50 years of her work. Later this year in October, Heide will mark her 90th year with Mirka Mora: Pas de Deux – Drawings and Dolls, with its curators have written a book, Mirka and Georges, to coincide with the exhibition.
It seems nearly every Melbournite who has worked, lived and breathed amongst the artistic milieu has a Mirka tale to tell, each more arresting and controversially charming than the next. She was the pied-piper of the art tableuax, weaving her special brand of magic-like pixie-dust wherever she went. What a life worth living! Mirka seemed to leave a trail of art-lovers; charming them with her whacky yet wise stories of her colourful life, led with joy. Her joy was infectious, with people often referring to her child-like approach akin to madness – Mirka was perhaps the most sane of all.
Mirka’s studio wall, 2014, Tanner St, Richmond, Melbourne.
Widely respected art dealer, son William Mora explains the magic which was Mirka, “an artist and mentor who touched the lives of thousands, she has had an indelible effect on Australia’s cultural life. The joie de vivre she has shared with so many will continue in her immense legacy of art and her spirit of generosity.”
“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”.
Mirka Mora, Mother and Child, 1984, Gouache on paper, 18 x 13cm.
Carrillo Gantner AO, expresses his heart-felt memories in the forthcoming book Mirka Mora, A life of Making Art by Sabine Cotte, published by Thames and Hudson Australia and due for release in 2019:
“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.
Mirka Mora, Friends and Lovers, 2004, Oil on Canvas, 119.5 x 119.5cm.
“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 Mora, Medieval Gathering (1987-1992), Oil on Canvas, 122.0 × 214.0cm, Image courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
“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.
Mirka Mora, Together, 1996, Oil on Canvas, 50.5 x 61cm.
“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’s vivacious personality and her vitality pegged her as a creative who blurred the boundaries by speaking with spirited sense of humanity. Thank you Mirka – you will certainly always be remembered for your exuberance and for exemplifying the art of joyful living.