Studio Visit

The Inimitable Mirka Mora

I was saddened to hear of the passing of the legendary Mirka Mora yesterday, August 27th.

A remarkable woman with the most brilliant spirit, Mirka contributed so much to Melbourne’s art world and the wider creative community. She truly was one in a million.

I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to meet her in 2014 for the interview you can read below. Then 87, she was hilarious and cheeky, just full of life and joy, regaling us with stories from her youth and Melbourne’s debaucherous, bohemian days!

Mirka, we were so lucky to have you!

Lucy Feagins

Home studio details.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka Mora.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka’s works on the wall of her home studio – the gaps in the wall are the works which have gone to Heide (labelled as such to remind Mirka they’re in safe hands!). Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka ‘s own works spread throughout her home studio.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka finishing off a painting.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka at work on her painting.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka Mora’s studio details.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Home studio details.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka Mora’s home/studio space.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka Mora.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka’s home details.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Mirka Mora’s studio paints in her home studio.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Kitchen details.  Photography – Sean Fennessy. Production – Lucy Feagins / The Design Files.

Lucy Feagins
28th of August 2018

Originally published May 9th, 2014.

Oh my. Today’s interview is one of those incredibly special ones that I know I will remember when I’m an old lady recounting my fondest memories of this time! It seems incredible (or ‘incroyable’ !) to have had the great honour of meeting and interviewing the amazing Mirka Mora last month.  At 87 years old, Mirka has an energy and vibrancy that is really impossible to describe.  She is cheerfulness and optimism personified!  She is also a charming hostess, completely hilarious and very cheeky (!), recounting for Sean and I endless stories about the debauchery of Melbourne’s bohemian scene in the early 50’s, when she first arrived here from Paris at just 21 years of age.  If such tales are to be believed (!), Melbourne seems to have mellowed out somewhat since then…!

Chatting to Mirka in her combined home / studio in Richmond, adjacent to the home of her son and art dealer William Mora, is a little like peering through a window into another era.  Her home is a treasure trove of ephemera collected by Mirka over the past 60 years – antique furniture and books stacked high on every surface, artworks crammed on every wall, a treasured collection of dolls and prams. There is barely enough space amongst the furniture to navigate from one side of the studio to the other, such is the scale of Mirka’s ever growing collection of antiques, art and objects.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we first met Mirka.  I didn’t know how long we’d have, or how patient she might be with each of my longwinded questions.  Of course, I should have guessed she would be so overwhelmingly generous, so gracious and so welcoming.  She bustled about making Sean and I strong black coffees, and offering us chocolates.  She was so warm and enthusiastic about sharing a morning with us in her home.

As we chatted, Mirka recalled tales from her youth in colourful detail.  She’s a master storyteller. After a brief introduction from her son William, I started off asking Mirka if it would be ok for me to ask her a few questions ‘Go for it, be game!’ she said!  Sean followed up, respectfully asking if she would mind if he took some photos as we chatted. ‘Of course! I LOVE to be photographed! Just be at home, just think it’s your studio’ she said excitedly.  And when we turned off her studio lights to shoot in natural light, the space plunged into momentary darkness. ‘Ooooh that is mysterious!’ was Mirka’s cheerful response!’ ‘Oh now you’re disappeared, I don’t know where you are!’

Mirka first came to Melbourne in 1951 with her husband Georges and first son Phillipe, seeking a new life after the war in Europe. The Moras lived first in rural McKinnon, but Mirka craved a more creative, colourful lifestyle, and it wasn’t long before she and Georges relocated into an amazing studio space at 9 Collins Street in the city, which suited them much better.  She didn’t know it at the time, but this building had been the former studio of a great many reverred Australian painters, including Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and many more.  Mirka and Georges were famed for the amazing parties they would throw here, and their studio became a hub for Melbourne’s cultural and arts communities, attracting an endless stream of visitors including both Australian and international artists, actors, dancers, musicians and art patrons.

It was at the Collins st studio that Mirka and Georges first met art patrons John and Sunday Reed.  This led to a long friendship with the influential pair, and like many other Melbourne artists at the time, Georges and Mirka were regular guests at John and Sunday’s house, Heide, in Bulleen.  The reeds would host dinners and parties with many of Melbourne’s most talented artists of the time, and also supported many artists with their patronage. Georges Mora would eventually go on to assist John in setting up the Museum of Modern Art at Heide.

In addition to their central involvement in Melbourne’ burgeoning arts community, Mirka and Georges were clever entrepreneurs. In 1954 they opened the Mirka Café on the corner of Exhibition Street and Little Bourke Street. Mirka worked in the kitchen, and The Contemporary Art Society would meet upstairs above the café, with Georges Mora as president and John Reed as director.  Together Georges, Mirka, John and Sunday would organise art exhibitions and events here, including a self initiated exhibition for the Royal Visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 – an alternative to the official one in the Melbourne Town Hall!

Though she speaks vividly and fondly of those incredible years in Collins street, Mirka lives very much in the present. Even today, she paints everyday, and says she is still learning all the time.  ‘I’m 87 now, if I like it or not!’ she says ‘I think the secret is not to grow up too much. I like to be insecure, I like to be on tenderhooks. You’ve got to tremble.’

Ever the gracious hostess, as we left, Mirka thanked us again for our visit.  ‘It was nice to talk about the past’ she said, and to Sean, ‘It’s nice to be photographed by you!’.  William came to see us out.  ‘I think I’ve been on my best behaviour!’ Mirka assured William, with a twinkle in her eye. ‘All I know my son taught me! We are having a fabulous time, William Cherie! We really are’.

Oh Mirka, how lucky Melbourne is to have inherited you!   And how very lucky we are to be treated to a comprehensive retrospective of Mirka’s work and life at Heide Gallery, opening this month.

The show, entitled ‘From the Home of Mirka Mora’, starts with the very first painting Mirka ever made in 1947, and ends with work completed this year!  Heide curator Kendrah Morgan and director Jason Smith worked closely with Mirka and William to select the works, and to negotiate with Mirka which works she would part with!   (‘She agreed to most things’ says William!).  In addition to her paintings, the show includes a lot of Mirka’s favourite objects, in particular her collection of dolls, as well as ceramics, soft sculptures, tapestries and drawings.  The show will be in the modern house, Heide II – it opens on May 17th and runs for most of the year, until November 9th.  We think they might need to extend the carpark for this one…!

Just a note – in transcribing our conversation below, I’ve tried as best as I can to leave intact Mirka’s occasional grammatical errors and charming idiosyncrasies. It’s all part of her magic!

Tell us a little about when you first moved to Melbourne. How old were you, and why Melbourne?

Well I was lucky. My husband didn’t want to come to Australia, but I had read books that my Daddy told me not to read, and in one book there was a beautiful French photographer who always went to Melbourne to make money for his friends in Paris. The photographer was Antoine Fauchery, 19th Century Melbourne. La Vie Bohème is based on that story. He made his money in Melbourne to support all his friends in Paris. You must have seen it, La Vie Bohème?

SO, when I was 16 my Daddy said to me ‘well you can read all the books on this shelf but I would rather you don’t read that one’. I mean you don’t say that to a girl of 16! That book was Scènes de la vie de Bohème by Henri Murger. And of course in it was a beautiful photographer who came to Melbourne to make money and bring the money back to Paris to all his friends, the poets and writers and singers, to support them.

Encroyable. I fell in love with the photographs of Antoine Fauchery.

What was it like in Melbourne when you first came here?

It was a desert. But what we didn’t know was that all the people in Melbourne were very naughty. All the marriages were open! We couldn’t believe it! In the 50’s they were all open marriage, and my husband and I, we couldn’t believe it! It was a den of iniquity! You have no idea what it was! Unless my husband and I we excited everybody…

He straight away took a mistress. He didn’t ask me permission, I was very sad, but all people were in open marriages in an innocent city like Melbourne, can you believe it?! Ask your parents. We thought Melbourne would be so proper and very decent. It was an inferno! We used to go to big parties and I usually get bored at big parties, so I have a very bad habit, I go under the table to see what everyone is doing. And they were all doing hanky panky. I could not believe what I was seeing!

When I was in a wicked mood I would get out of the table and I used to say ‘Ah she’s doing that to him! He’s doing that to her!’ and I used to cause a lot of shambles and troubles. I had to because I don’t like boring parties. And they invited me, they have to pay the price. But I’m talking about 1952, can you imagine!?

Every city has its secret and its history. And the romance of Melbourne is great you know. All the gold diggers who came in and made their fortune and died. I have a disease you know, I’m a big reader, that’s a disease, so I had read a lot about Melbourne, that’s why I came… because of Antoine Fauchery.

So you set up in Collins street?

Well I was terribly lucky, because we came in a little aeroplane called 305, it was a little aeroplane that all the wealthy people from Melbourne went in to London or Paris, but we didn’t know that, anyhow in that little plane was a lady who thought I was quite a remarkable mother, because I had William’s brother with me, who was called Phillipe, my first son, and she thought I was a wonderful mother in the aeroplane, when we stopped in other cities she thought I was marvellous, and we became friends. I think she was a kind of lawyer or something.

And when we arrived we lived in McKinnon.  But one day I said to her, I really have to have a studio, I can’t paint, I can’t stay in McKinnon.  It was terrible because I had a big cockatoo who woke up all the street every morning. Somebody had given me a cockatoo and all the people complained about my cockatoo in McKinnon! So we had to give him away and I was so sad!

Anyhow I said to my friend that lady who was a lawyer ‘I can’t stay in McKinnon, I have to find a studio’ and she helped us get the studio in the end.

And of course I didn’t know the history of the studio, but the atmosphere was bewitching! It was the studio of Tom Roberts, McCubbin, Conder, all the great painters had had that studio. And we lived there for 16 years.  It was beautiful. Number 9 Collins street.

This was very exceptional. All the great painters had been there. Can you imagine? because when I came in the studio you could have taken the atmosphere with a spoon and eat it! It was such a charming place, with a soul.

Everybody came of course, as it was not far from the Windsor Hotel and The Ballet, and people came, all the actors and dancers. Maurice Chevalier was at the Windsor Hotel and I used to meet him in the Windsor gardens, pushing the pram with my Baby. And we became friends. So Melbourne was a nest of treasure really, if you knew the history.

And how did you first meet John and Sunday Reed?

We met through the studio.  A lot of people knew the history of the studio, but nobody would tell me. I wanted to find out, because the atmosphere was so bewitching, and I didn’t know it had been a studio for painters or anything, I just knew it was extraordinary place with a soul.

So eventally everyone who knew the place came, of course, and it was fun and games night and day! My Husband and I, we loved giving parties, because that’s when you talk and met people. And one day John and Sunday Reed came to the studio. Of course they knew the history of the studio, but I didn’t know them, they didn’t tell us.

They bought a lot of paintings, and my husband got involved with John Reed to start the Museum of Modern Art, because we came from Paris and Melbourne didn’t have a museum of modern art then. The gallery was there already, but not the latest art. And my husband Georges Mora helped John and Sunday Reed start Heide, The Museum of Modern Art. And of course they sold it to the government when they died, so it will be there in perpetuity.

So in those years, it must have been very different out there at Heide, compared to your life in the city?

Collins st was fun and games day and night! You have no idea what was going on in my house, it was a house of iniquity! We danced and danced in those days, we were young, we danced right through to the early morning!

After one of our parties, one morning John Perceval said ‘I want a duck for lunch!’ and of course I went straight away to get the duck, it was only 6.30 in the morning, but I knew a shop that cooked ducks. So I went… and I’m going to tell you something really naughty now, but it’s the truth!  So I went to get a duck for John Perceval, and on my way back in Collins street, I could hear two young men laughing like imbeciles, because the wind was blowing up, and in those days I wore big skirts, and of course I forgot to put underpants! So these two men were laughing like idiots! But I was a good hostess. John Perceval got his duck!

Another day I was at the National Gallery, there was a big ‘Do’ in 1978 because Sir Sidney Nolan had his big exhibition of paintings. There was a lot of people, and I was too tired, and I didn’t want to talk to anybody anymore, and I saw a little door at the end of the big room downstirs at the National Gallery.  So I went to the door, to see if it opened.  It did open, and I went in, and I shut it, and I had a bit of respite.

Suddenly the door opens again, and a most exquisite man comes in, you could die for it! And he says to me ‘I know who you are, I know your work’ and I say ‘I know who you are too’. It was Sidney Nolan! I could have passed out! I did pass out, I am still passed out! It was so exquisite! I mean he was very good looking and dressed impeccably, and wasn’t he very gallant to say ‘I know your work?!’ can you imagine Sidney Nolan saying that?! So I did wee wee in my pants! And when he left I gave him my hand to say goodbye and his hand was most exquisite, the hand that paintd all the great paintings you know. You can’t plan a scene like that. If I hadn’t seen that little door. It was such a great honour. It was so delicious. So magic things can happen at the National Gallery.

So it was fun and games. I painted with one baby in one arm, William, and I painted always, because I am a self taught person so I have got to learn a lot. I’ve always painted.

So you still paint everyday?

Oh you have to paint everyday. It’s not a disease but it’s a passion. Because what’s amazing is that I’m learning a lot of things. I can’t believe it. I thought I knew everything about painting. I don’t! I’m learning everyday.

Can you tell me what you do in a normal day?

Well my bed is in my studio! But lately I’m a bit sad, because usually I was in my studio at 8.00 O’clock, always I would start and have a good run until 12 o clock. But now I’m starting at 10.00 O’Clock, I’m getting a bit old or something I don’t know what it is. But physically I can’t. So I am losing 2 hours every day of painting. But I catch them again later!

I’m very addicted to very special light from the sky that is divine at 3.00 O’Clock in the afternoon. It just bewitches me, it’s a special light, its like a liquor! You know you drink it, and then the bottle it empty! But another days comes and it starts again.

I am terribly lucky. I have always painted every day, even when I had my son William when he was a baby on my arm. And one day I did an interview on TV and I saw paint on my Baby’s leg, and I was sad! I said ‘Oh that’s not fair, that my baby has paint on his leg!’. You see that’s paint that you have to clean with turpentine, that’s not fair to put turpentine on a baby’s skin! I’ve been feeling guilty about that for years!

Do you have any other Australian artists whose work that you love?

I have a beautiful things from Charles Blackman. And beautiful memento drawings from John Perceval which I adore and love so much. But they were all working so hard and they were all drinking too much.

I don’t drink while I’m working, I’m no fool! I drink after. I like a good wine. I like a good man and a good wine! And I like a good inteviewer and a good photographer! I am greedy in other words. Because time goes fast you know, I’m about 87 or something now. I still think I’m 18. Time goes fast.

What do you think is your proudest achievement?

Well my three sons and my lover. That’s four things. Got nothing to do with painting does it!!? (laughs)

Actually that’s got a lot of things to do with painting. Because to be a painter you have to be a complete human being, don’t you? Or a photographer, or a writer, you have to be fulfilled in all ways… otherwise your brain is empty like a pancake. I don’t want pancake in my brain!

It’s very difficult painting, I can’t even talk about it really. Because I want to be the boss on my canvas, but I’m not. So that’s what’s uncanny, that’s where the mystery of producing a painting is.

What are you looking forward to?

I would like to face my death very elegantly. But I don’t know how to do it, yet. Because I am 87 or something. So it starts to be close.

I tell you the secret, don’t grow up, that’s the secret. I should be a lady of 87 but to hell with it! I want to have bad manners and bad habits, I don’t want to grow up in other words. But I hope I am a good example to other people, because you don’t have to grow old. It’s a trap!



Do you have a favourite neighbourhood in Melbourne?

Well I still love walking in Collins street. Because of the nostalgia. That was the beginning of Melbourne too.

But I love Melbourne very much. I love Australia very much. I went to see Uluru, that big rock in the middle of Australia. And you’re never the same afterwards. It was such an inspiration. Have you been? Oh you must. Very important. It’s very mysterious, its like a big brain. It has a soul. The rock has a soul. It seems to feed you but you don’t know what it feeds you with. It’s unforgettable.

I was very honoured to go there. My brain is enriched. But it’s a bit scary, the rock. Because it sends vibrations. I could feel all sort of things coming out of the rock. All sort of waves, electricity, it was very extraordinary. So aboriginal people have great mysteries, they know secrets we don’t know. I want to know!

What was last great meal you ate in Melbourne?

I used to be a very good cook. Actually I was a chef in our first restaurant called Mirka Café in Exhibition street. But in France all the girls are good cooks, because your mother teaches you.

Now that I’m a bit older I’ve lost my ‘oomph’ for food. Phillipe Mouchel, I love him a lot, he’s a French chef in the city. His cooking is so refined. But you have to be French to appreciate it, it’s like reading a poem.

What is Melbourne’s best kept secret?

Well I must say The Florentino and Guy Grossi are really special, and Phillip Mouchel. Those two chefs. They’re great artists. Guy Grossi is a poet. But I prefer French cooking to Italian cooking, but I’m not fair. I’m not fair at all.

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