In 1950s Melbourne, one woman – a heady swirl of liberalism, paints and Parisian accent – would make a bigger impression on the quiet town than the Eureka Tower on its modern-day skyline. Here, Fleur Romano spends an afternoon in the colourful company of adored artist, Mirka Mora.
Mirka Mora’s trademark smile and wide eyes instantly give away her cheeky nature as she greets me in the doorway of her home studio. “Bonjour, mon amie! Sorry, I am not ready for our interview. I am in a fog…”
Paintbrush in hand and smelling of turpentine, 84-year-old Mirka invites me inside, through the many piles of books, furniture, canvasses and keepsakes that fill her apartment. She seems anxious: “I have been lost in my painting this morning, and I am waiting for a call from my son William – he is in Paris. What time is it in Paris now?”
Her overcrowded apartment would send a neat freak into shock, but Mirka is clearly comfortable in her natural habitat. “It is organised chaos, I assure you,” she laughs. Let me make coffee, I am desparate for coffee…”
She apologises again for being distracted, “I’m so sorry, I hope you’re not in a hurry?” I explain that I have all afternoon as my husband is babysitting. “Aah, you have a baby! You must put a brush in his hand before he is one-year-old!” she instructs.
I admit to giving my one-year-old son his first painting experience a day earlier. Her face lights up and she reaches out to shake my hand: “C’est magnifique! That is wonderful… that’s what they love. Babies are fascinated to see the trace left behind from the brush – they understand they are powerful creators! My babies were born in a pot of paint! They couldn’t escape; I paint every day.”
Perhaps it was this influence that led all three of Mirka’s children to pursue creative careers. Eldest son, Philippe, is a filmmaker; William, a gallery owner and art dealer; Tiriel, an actor best known for his performance in the TV satire Frontline and movie, The Castle.
Mirka invites me to look at her work in progress – new paintings to be included in her upcoming retrospective exhibition. I negotiate a precarious path through the artist’s homely maze, taking blind turns through narrow corridors of high-rise bookcases stuffed full of magazines, jars of paintbrushes, teapots, dolls…
I am self-taught in everything, all my schooling, and all my painting – I never wanted to follow the rules.
Rounding one last corner, I suddenly arrive in a ghostly garden of Eden. It takes my breath away: I am standing in a circle of large canvasses, all partially covered in Mirka’s signature style. Delightfully rounded faces stare back at me in joyful, sensual poses, each lightly covered in a thin layer of white paint. The effect is simply beautiful… the paintings excude mystery and are strangely comforting. I feel excited and rested in the same moment.I return to find Mirka grinding beans for our coffee and ask her about the whitewash effect. She admits that this is the first formal technique she has ever applied to her work. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it? I have never followed the rules of art, but this is one technique I thought I would try. The colours only just peek through the white, and it feels very emotional.” Her rich Parisian accent echoes my reaction to the paintings.
Independent learning has been a strong theme in Mirka’s life. The Second World War and her narrow escape from the Auschwitz concentration camp at age 14 arrested any chance of a regular education. “I am self-taught in everything, all my schooling, and all my painting – I never wanted to follow the rules. But you have to know the rules so you can avoid them!”
No stranger to success, at 84, Mirka continues to contribute significantly to Australia’s conteporary art scene. Her mediums include sculpture, mosaics and doll making. Early on, Mirka was trained in acting and mime (by none other than Marcel Marceau). But it is painting that has taken centre stage for most of her life. Since the early 1950s, when Mirka immigrated to Australia from France with her husband, Georges Mora, she has enjoyed more than 35 solo exhibitions and has been a key player in Melbourne’s cultural evolution.
Mirka’s recipe for success is simple: “You have to adore yourself – voilà!” She firmly believes that the kinder one is to oneself, the more successful they will be. “You must love yourself like your own child. Even if it appears outrageous, you need to spoil yourself”. Mirka is proud to have always been this way: “I come first. I’m a mean dog!” she laughs. “People neglect themselves, and complain about every little thing. Nurture yourself, have imagination and think laterally!”It’s becoming apparent that I am drinking coffee with a fabulously wise woman – where a healthy ego meets a genuine warmth and love of people. But indulgent self-adoration is not the whole story. Despite looking after number one, Mirka takes a remarkably balanced approach to life and to her work. Undeniably, she is an emotional being – a quality crucial to her art. But her acute self-awareness, analytical thinking and discipline are all strikingly apparent.
“Discipline is also part of childhood. When the child is naughty, it must be corrected.” Adore, yes. Coddle, no. “I am a great admirer of myself. I am always happy with what I paint. But sometimes it is hard to get at it [the desired result], and I correct myself. I will trim it because I tend to be extravagant. I need discipline!”
Like hitting a wrong musical note, Mirka often strikes a wrong chord in her drawings. “In painting, the content is so difficult. You must be straight with yourself. You must always query what you’re thinking, because your brain tricks you all the time.”
When I ask her to elobrate, she explains: “Emotions are distracting… they lead you in the wrong direction. When my brain tricks me, I can be outrageous. I can do a naughty drawing that is not necessary in the middle of my painting. But I will do it, and then paint over it. You can’t be sad when you work – the work gets too mellow.”
Mirka voraciously consumes English and French literature to sharpen her intellectual powers. Reading the likes of Camus, Sartre, Shakespeare and Flaubert maintains her ability to think critically, be inspired, and analyse the meaning of what she’s working on. “The brain directs your emotion, so you have to read a lot – literature massages your brain and then you can paint well. Reading helps you to think.”
I wonder if it is ever too late for Mirka to make changes to her paintings. “No, never! I just throw paint at it and cover up the mistake – I am a killer of my paint, it’s so sexy!” This instantly reminds me of author William Faulkner’s advice to ‘kill your darlings’, that is, delete prose that doesn’t fit the context of the larger work, even if the prose is heartbreakingly beautiful.
“Sometimes you love what you kill, but it’s too wet for my taste, or it doesn’t fit,” she shrugs.
To Mirka, no work is precious until it’s right. “I think most artists are like this – they are not afraid. I’m thinking of Sidney Nolan and my great friends Charles Blackman, John Perceval. You have to be brave, be true, because you give yourself away sometimes when you don’t have to.”
Reluctantly, I bring our conversation to a close and let Mirka get back to her painting. She thanks me and smiles, “You know what they say: ‘No respite for the wicked, even less for the virtuous!” We say goodbye and, as I leave her charmingly cluttered studio, I know this is one artist who will remain proactive, prolific and unstoppable until her dying day. Voilà!
Described as a ‘delightfully eccentric account of a life lived to the utmost’, delve deeper into Mirka’s life in her autobiography, Wicked But Virtuous (Penguin).
Mirka joined the case of wise and funny women on the ABC’s Agony Aunts, ‘a hilarious search for answers on dating, cohabitation, marriage, divorce and being single again’. Available now on DVD.
First published July 2012.
Images: Kylie Grinham