Presciently, the Moras stayed in St Kilda Road when they arrived in July 1951. A series of fortunate coincidences lead them to rent an apartment at 9 Collins Street, already known as the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street. Grosvenor Chambers was built in 1888 to accommodate artist studios and its illustrious tenants included Tom Roberts, Jane Sutherland, Arthur Streeton and Clara Southern, all members of the Heidelberg School.
Through Mirka and Georges’ growing intimacy with cultural figures such as John and Sunday Reed, Joy Hester, Ian and Dawn Sime, Charles and Barbara Blackman, John Perceval and Mary Boyd, as well as poet Barrett Reid, they found themselves at the centre of modernist discourse and artmaking. It inspired Mirka who, without any formal training, committed herself to painting. In 1953, the Moras’ apartment hosted the first meeting of the revived Contemporary Art Society. The Mirka Cafe opened in Exhibition Street the following year and the Balzac, a successful French bistro, was launched in 1956 to coincide with the wave of international tourism from the Olympic Games.
Mirka was a stunningly attractive young woman. Her chic fashion sense, gamine hair style together with a radiant smile, mischievous manner, and genuine warmth and sympathy made her probably the most interesting woman in town. The phrase joie de vivre could have been invented for her. She seduced Melbourne – with her naughty sense of humour I believe she’d like that description – in the nicest possible way. She was also a woman of prodigious energy, capable of running a restaurant, being a mother and exploring her destiny as an artist. As Ross Lansell comments, ‘Mirka would work 48 hours a day if she could. She was a workaholic. She would go on and on without ever feeding herself’. (17)
It must have been a surprise for their Australian friends – most of whom desperately wanted to flee the antipodes for Europe – to meet French intellectuals who had abandoned it. The Moras did not emphasise their Jewish roots, or the trauma of war. Did they wish to lay the past to rest? Did they feel they might encounter prejudice here? Tellingly, they did not teach their children to speak French. (As a child, I recall hearing other languages spoken on the tram or in the street by emigrants who were labelled ‘dagos’.) When Georges became a gallery director, his trips to the continent were frequent. Mirka, however, was reluctant. I often asked her why – why not visit home? She hadn’t forgotten her French and her voice carried a deliciously distinctive accent. But Mirka – usually so forthright and articulate, so full of spirit - never quite seemed to have a definite answer. I felt she was putting it off. (18) Perhaps the ghosts of the camps had rendered France a cemetery.
See more of the Mirka Mora Project
Chapter 1: From Paris to Melbourne
Chapter 2: Paris End of Collins St - 1950s
Chapter 3: St Kilda, Fitzroy Street (Tolarno) 1966-1970
Chapter 4: St Kilda, Wellington Street 1970-1975
Chapter 5: St Kilda, Barkly Street 1981-1999 and beyond