Mirka’s World: an exhibition

June 15, 2020 by Henry Benjamin
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MIRKA, an exhibition exploring the astonishing life and work of Australian art icon, Mirka Mora, will open in December at The Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne.

Mirka Mora 2016

Featuring never before seen works from the private collections of the Mora family, as well as letters diaries, and drawing on her recorded interviews with Jewish Holocaust Centre archives, the exhibition will be co-curated by her son, gallerist William Mora in what will be the most expansive and complete retrospective of her life and works ever shown, and the first major exhibition of her work with the direct involvement of the Mora family, following her death in 2018.

Mirka Mora was a legend in Melbourne. She and her husband Georges ran three significant cafes where the city’s bohemian subculture made its social base as well as many of Melbourne’s Jewish community. They opened The Mirka Café, followed be Café Balzac and finally Tolarno.

Mirka was born in Paris in 1928. She was arrested by the Germans in 1942 but her father managed to secure a release for her and her mother. The family survived the war in hiding in forests in France. She met Georges Mora in Paris following the war. He had been a resistance fighter in the same group as Marcel Marceau. After the war Mirka and Georges settled in Melbourne in 1951.

Mirka was attracted to the bohemian lifestyle which was reflected in her appearance making her one of Melbourne’s best-known identities.  She and Georges had three children, actor Tiriel, film director Philippe Mora and art dealer William Mora.

J-Wire spoke to her son William Mora who is co-curating the exhibition.

William Mora

JW: Has the family had a history in the arts?

WM: My grandmother was a dressmaker and my grandfather was an antique dealer. Mirka recalled she was surrounded by antiques and the beautiful objects her father sold.

JW: After Mirka and Georges arrived in Melbourne, they seemed to have established themselves very quickly. How did this happen?

WM: They met John and Sunday Reed who were very well known in artistic circles. They had a group known as The Moderns which included Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, John Perceval and Joy Hester. Georges and Mirka became one of the group very early on. Mirka had been making collars for the department store Georges where Sunday Reed regularly shopped. The head of the department introduced Mirka to Sunday who commissioned Mirka to make her a dress. When Mirka delivered it, Sunday Reed reacted saying ‘this is not a dress, this is a work of art’ and she hung it on the wall. And so very quickly they found themselves in this group of very creative people. The group was excited to have an exotic French couple in their midst.

JW:  Tell me about Georges

WM: He was a German Jew studying medicine at the Leipzig University when the Nazis arrived on the scene. Georges had two black marks. One he is Jewish and the second he was a member of the Communist Party. He fled Germany to Paris where he presented himself as being a Frenchman. We couldn’t work out why he would not get into his friends’ Volkswagens or Mercedes.

JW: Your father had a succession of eateries. What happened to them.

WM:  My father had a very successful restaurant with the Mirka Cafe in the mid-50s  and then Cafe Balzac which went to being number one in Victoria. In 1967, my father bought the Tolarno Hotel in St Kilda and we moved there. It became Tolarno French Bistro. He sold that in 1975 and I went into partnership with my father on the gallery side of the business. The Tolarno still exists. The interior was painted by Mirka and the restaurant now has a Heritage listing so it will be there for a long time to come.

JW: You have two brothers. Are they involved with Mirka’s legacy?

WM: Philippe lives in Los Angeles and Tiriel lives in NSW in the Blue Mountains. But they are involved but it is difficult given the distance. We all appreciate having what a special mother we had. Once Mirko was asked what advice she has got for budding artists. She responded  ‘just make sure when early in your career, you give birth to your own art dealer’.

Mirka at the Mirka Cafe 1954

JW: In 1964, a critic reviewing Paintings by the Aleph Group said Mirka’s work “distinctively Jewish”. What did he mean by that?

WM: I don’t see anything overt religious in her work. Her work is very much to do with humanity. She always said she saw the same value in people as an animal. Figures in her art morph into animals or vice versa.

JW:  Mirka had a bohemian life. Did she have any association with Melbourne’s Jewish community?

WM: Very much so. Through the restaurants. So many ate there also through the gallery. Many bought her work. She was very involved culturally with the Jewish community.

JW:  Mirka’s work has not been exhibited overseas. Are there any plans to do so?

WM:  It is one of my ambitions is to take work back to Paris. Mirka had mixed feelings about Paris and France. She was arrested by a French policeman and dragged off to a concentration camp. She used to say ‘I still have not forgiven them’. She gave workshops around Australia but she was happy to be in her studio.

JW:  Is she equally as well-known in Sydney as Melbourne?

WM: Moreso in Melbourne. We had a very successful show in Sydney which was opened by Hazel Hawke and Mirka did a wonderful interview with Margaret Throsby on the ABC. A lot of her work was sold with many buyers saying that they had not heard of Mirka before.

In 2002, Mirka was made an Officier de l’Ordre des Artes et des Lettres by France her promoting French culture in Australia. In the same year, Elton John and Meryl Streep got the same award so she has known to the French Government.

JW: The upcoming exhibition will be held at The Jewish Museum of Australia. Are there plans for other cities?

WM: Later this year, her work will be featured in a major show at the National Gallery in Canberra called Know My Name – 100 Years of Women Artists in Australia. In the future, I would like to see more museum shows on a national level down the track.

JW:  Whats is your favourite memory of your mother?

WM: There are so many. But she didn’t fit into ordinary situations. We were cruel to her as young children. We wouldn’t let her pick us from school unless she wore a twin set we bought for her. She used to make her own clothes out blankets and all kinds of things. When she picked us up dressed in her own creations, she stood out like a sore thumb. We were embarrassed and wanted her to look at all the other mums. Mum was a great exhibitionist. She would flash her boobs and would throw cakes if one was presented to her. As young kids, she gave us moments of embarrassment. When we became teenagers, we started to appreciate her individuality and her passion for life.

At the Torlarno Hotel 1967

JW: Do you have a favourite piece of Mirka’s work?

WM: She painted for the 70 years she lived in Australia. Every decade produced its own favourite. When you see the whole body of her work, it is quite remarkable. What is interesting especially in these crazy times the power of her work and the power of her desire to understand humanity and to see good in everything and the importance of embracing diversity and embracing the differences in people. Coming through strongly in her work is the power this sense of humanity and to love each other and not kill each other. Mirka had a profound love of humanity. And she created her world of way of0 dealing having survived the Holocaust.

A Mirka painting showing humans morphing into animals

JW: Did she discuss her Holocaust years?

WM: Not really when we were young. [Philippe Mora made the film “Monsieur Mayonnaise”] When the film was being produced we learnt more. When our parents arrived in Australia they embraced it as their new home and they didn’t talk much about their years during the war. But I am looking forward to seeing the film Resistance as my father was in the Resistance with Marcel Marceau. They both dressed up as nuns to save Jewish children.

The Jewish Museum of Australia’s CEO and director Jewish Jess Bram told J-Wire: “The exhibition will give us an opportunity to raise Mirka Mora’s profile nationally and internationally. We were due to open it in June but COVID put paid to that. It feels more poignant now after this period of intense isolation. Mirka’s magic is waiting for us in the summer. She is a symbol of hope and reislience. It is unprecedented to have Mirka’s son collaborating with is in curating the exhibition. We will be using her autobiography, her testimony and many interviews to tell her story. It will be an exhibition which will come to life using mixed media. We will be showcasing early archives, photographs, letters, Mirka’s notebooks, early artworks, charcoal on paper, oil on canvas, some of her large-scale paintings with the multimedia . The planned result is Mirka’s World.

Jess Bram added: “This will not be an ordinary gallery experience…not a traditional one. This will be one of the largest exhibitions ever shown at the museum, if not the largest.”

The exhibition is planned to run for six to nine months.

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