ZEST FOR LIFE
Mirka Mora’s new show at Heide sparkles with the joy of a life well lived. She and talk art, friends, food and inspiration
senior, and the couple moved to Melbourne in 1951. Mirka set up a studio at 9 Collins Street (formerly used by Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin, and since knocked down) and opened a cafe in Exhibition Street.
There, and later at their restaurants, the Balzac and Tolarno, the couple hosted artists, the bohemian set and cosmopolitan Melburnians.
The Moras befriended John and Sunday Reed, and the circle of writers, artists and intellectuals they cultivated at their home at Heide. It was a seductive and slightly dangerous place, Mirka says, although the Moras arrived on the scene in the years after Sunday’s relationship with Sidney Nolan. Later, the two families had neighbouring weekenders at Aspendale in Melbourne’s southeast.
“The reason my husband and I became so friendly with the Reeds is that when you went to the library, they had the same books that we had in Paris,” Mora says. “Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, all these people were there, in their bookshelves, and that made us very close straight away.”
The Heide exhibition this month follows a retrospective of Mora’s work there in 1999. The new show is a collection of personal works, called From the Home of Mirka Mora. It includes one of her earliest pictures — of a church and landscape, painted during her honeymoon at Talloires in 1947 — and her latest, painted this year. Mora’s soft-sculpture dolls, ceramics and works on paper fill out the picture of the artist who has found an outlet in so many forms. (Her output also includes murals, stage designs and a lively memoir, Wicked But Virtuous.)
A morning with Mirka is like visiting, when they were still alive, Martin Sharp or Margaret Olley at their homes in Sydney. Olley’s “hat factory” studio was a maelstrom of paintings, catalogues, bits and pieces of sculpture, flowers drying in vases and overflowing ashtrays. In a project of archeological proportions, the studio has been re-created at the Tweed Regional Gallery in northern NSW.
Art and life are inseparable in such places, a reminder to any who may dabble that art is a vocation, not a 9-5 job. Although she has lived at the Richmond apartment only since 2000, when she moved from her house at St Kilda, Mora’s place is similarly chaotic, a hoarder’s paradise, but where seemingly every scrap, trinket, perambulator and refrigerator emanates a personal history. I’m sitting on the chair where Marcel Marceau once sat.
After coffee, she leads me to another corner where, squeezed between her canopied brass bed and the balcony, are two canvases she has been working on. The larger one shows a kind of enchanted garden, with winged cupids, human figures and a happy serpent. The smaller picture has a woman holding a bird that could be a duck.
Mora says she detests religion, but the viewer may regard her pictures as icons of a kind. “The bird is supposed to be a penis, did you know that?” she says. There’s logic to this: the only time she saw her father naked, she thought his penis looked like a duck’s neck.
Painting is a daily occupation for Mora, who believes in keeping her artistic self in a state of fitness or readiness, like an athlete. She has no say in the arrival of ideas or their form. Where does her inspiration come from?
“That’s what I ask myself every day,” she says. “I have to steal it because if I decide to do something, that’s not art. It has to discover me. It’s mysterious, but that’s how it works.”
Mirka Mora in her studio in Richmond, Melbourne, left; her work (1970), below