Today Melbourne has lost some of its colour

August 28, 2018 by David Marlow
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Mirka Mora was a cultural icon of Melbourne who brought beauty, vibrancy and colour to the city. 

Mirka Mora

She was part of the post-war immigration from Europe that helped transform Melbourne from a British colonial town to a modern, cosmopolitan city with a vibrant arts scene.  She was a beloved artist, bohemian and major cultural influence, distinctly European, distinctly Melbournian and proudly Jewish.

In 2014 Mirka said, “I love being Jewish. I cannot imagine not being Jewish.”

Her son, art dealer William Mora confirmed her passing on Monday night, “An artist and mentor who touched the lives of thousands, she has had an indelible effect on Australia’s cultural life. At 90, she fought Alzheimer’s and age-related illness to the end. The joie de vivre she has shared with so many will continue in her immense legacy of art and her spirit of generosity.”

I can remember vividly the whimsical and colourful mural adorning the walls of the Tolarno bistro in Fitzroy Street, bringing a sense of magic to meals with my parents there in the 1970’s.

This was after the Mora’s had sold the restaurant to Leon Massoni, a friend of my father’s.  We ate there often, absorbing the immediately recognisable Mirka Mora artwork, complete with cherubs and flowers, and visiting the gallery at the back of the building for a bit of cultural immersion.  You could kick my parents out of Europe, but you couldn’t kick the Europe out of them.  The same applies to Mirka.

Mirka was renowned for her murals and mosaics, notably adorning St Kilda pier, Flinders Street Station, Café Tolarno and a number 12 tram in the 1980s.  How Melbourne can you get?

Mirka Mora 1961
Photo: J. Brian McArdle

Acclaimed Melbourne author Arnold Zable writes: “Mirka Mora was extraordinary. She radiated a love of life and people. I loved visiting her in the years when she lived in her St Kilda cottage. She would spontaneously do drawings and present them to me. She was extremely generous with her time, and donated drawings and paintings for the Melbourne Chronicle, the Kadimah publication when I was co-editor.”

“Her contribution to Melbourne’s growth as a vibrant, creative, cosmopolitan city was phenomenal. Any time spent with her was magical. She was a creative, tour de force, who loved to share her art, her stories, her passion and joie de vivre. Just thinking about her makes me smile and laugh. She remains unforgettable. I was fortunate to know her.”

Premier Daniel Andrews has issued a statement on her passing saying, “Known for her bold and bright work, Mirka Mora drenched our city and our state with colour…Brave, funny, irreverent and talented, Mirka was an icon of our city and state.”

Victorian Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley stated, “The world weeps tonight for the loss of one of our brightest stars – Mirka Morawas that impossible combination of creativity and vitality that touched all those she came in contact with for the better.”

Heide Victoria MP, Shadow Minister for Arts and Culture added: “Melbourne lost one of its most adored characters, Mirka Mora.  I’ll always remember her as a strong yet sweet woman, whose gift for the use of colour was truly unique.

An icon on the arts scene over many, many decades, her legacy lives on in our great city, its public spaces and treasured eateries.  Vale Mirka.”

Lord Mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp said of Mirka: “One of Melbourne’s much-loved and best known artists whose unique artistic talents graced our city with colour and joie de vivre.”

Jennifer Huppert, President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria told J-Wire: “Mirka Mora made a significant contribution to the Victorian artistic world through her public art, including her work at Flinders Street station.  She added to the vibrancy of our strong, rich multicultural society.”

Mark Dreyfus MP, former Shadow Minister for the Arts said on social media, “Rest in peace Mirka Mora- Melbourne and Australia have lost one of our iconic artists.”

There have been about 35 Mirka Mora solo exhibitions since 1956, including a retrospective exhibition of fifty years of her work at the Heide Museum of Modern Art in 1999-2000. She was made Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government, presented to her by her theatre teacher and long time close friend Marcel Marceau in 2002.

Mirka’s parents were both Jewish and she was born in Paris on March 18, 1928.  Her father Leon Zelik was from Lithuania and her mother Celia Gelbein was from Romania.

As we tragically know, this was not a great time to be Jewish in Europe.  Mirka and her mother were caught up in the Nazi’s major French roundup of Jews in 1942.  They were transported by train to the transit camp in Pithviers. With a lot of luck, and not a little bribery orchestrated by her father, they were released just before they would have met their fate like so many others in Auschwitz.

They returned to Paris and Mirka met, and later married a French Resistance fighter, Georges Mora(originally Morawski).  They came to Australia in 1951 with baby Philippe.

The couple fitted very well into the active, bohemian Melbourne art scene, hosting, mentoring and often employing many great Australian artists.  They opened Mirka Café in Exhibition Street in the 1950s and when that overflowed with patrons, they opened the iconic Café Balzac in 1956. They bought the Tolarno Hotel in the late 1960s, which housed their home, a restaurant and Mirka’s art studio. Later they opened the Tolarno Gallery downstairs in the hotel.  The Gallery can now be found in Exhibition Street in the city.

Melbourne would not have been the same Melbourne if we had never had the privilege of being the home of the wonderful Mirka Mora.  Mirka is survived by her creative and talented sons Philippe, William and Tiriel, their partners and her beloved grandchildren.


Born: 18 March 1928, Paris, France  Mirka Madeleine Zelik

Died: 27 August 2018, Melbourne


2 Responses to “Today Melbourne has lost some of its colour”
  1. John Presley says:

    My Grandfather Peter Richardson was the head chef at Balzac for 8 years and knew Mirka and Georges well. My Grandmother Kathleen, now 98 years old, lives in Hobart, Tasmania and spent much time over art and food with Mirka.. I was just speaking with Everard my uncle, now 61 years old, and he said he used to play with Mirka’s kids when he was about their age. Small world. I have a drawing of Mirka’ is very special. I also have a photo of Georges and my Grandfather at the Balzac, holding a Aussie meat pie! I hope to attend the State Memorial.

  2. Adrian Jackson says:

    Former Port Phillip councilor Serge Thomann was on ABC radio oday morning her death as they were friends. As well as her art and murals she was also skilled at mosaics. An example is the round seat (about 3 meters in diameter) located at the start of St Kilda Pier. A wild bohemian, at times, as a young adult and loved by many Port Phillip residents.

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