Mirka didn’t move far from the Tolarno. She rented a shopfront and dwelling at 26 Wellington Street, off St Kilda Junction and about a ten minute walk. (50) ‘Everybody visits me’, she said. (51) It seemed Mirka was continuing the same open house policy she and Georges had adopted since 9 Collins Street. Fashion designer Jenny Kee and her partner artist Michael Ramsden came to stay, as did journalist Mary Craig and the poet Michael Dransfield. Jean Shrimpton dropped in. But there were rules. Mirka worked solidly from 9am until 2pm, when no visitors were allowed. Then after a bath - ‘I get covered in paint’ - she had lunch, often at a nearby restaurant or cafe, and connected with family and friends. (52)
I first met Mirka in 1974 when I was an art history student at Melbourne University. I was organising a feature on women artists for Farrago, the student newspaper, of which I’d been appointed art critic. Mirka was one of the first woman artists I had met. Apart from being astonished by the Aladdin’s cave at Wellington Street, there was Mirka herself: disarming, witty, intense and unique. She’d abandoned her chic French style for a vintage look. A typical outfit would be a sweeping velvet dress adorned with lace collar and cuffs, child’s red shoes, her long dark hair worn loose, her eyes outlined with kohl - fashion statements from the hippie era. But it was a style that suited her environment: most of the objects Mirka collected belonged to earlier eras. There was little that was modern at Wellington Street.
I asked if she felt discriminated against as a woman artist. ‘I’d say I wasn’t taken seriously first because I had three children’. Did she think having children meant some women artists dropped out? ‘Yes. They are not maniacs like I am. They haven’t got the feel for learning more or something’. (53) Her confidence as a woman artist was unusual for the time. When Barrett Reid asked her if she felt unappreciated, Mirka replied, ‘No, because I have such confidence in my work and I know my work is quite something’. (54) I would be hard put to think of another Melbourne woman artist who, at that time, would speak so boldly.
Mirka was a true collector – enough was never enough. Over the years, she continued to acquire vintage toys, prams, fine china, exquisite pieces of fabric, books, both antiquarian and recent, records (usually of classical music), clothes that might be from an op shop or carry a designer label, handbags, shoes, hats, furniture, sewing machines, easels, palettes, paints and brushes. Even a piano. She bid by phone at international auctions for some particular item she desired, meaning her bank balance often suffered.
This gorgeous clutter occupied the entirety of her home/studio, the mass of objects becoming an artwork in its own right, a labyrinth of treasures, a trove of visual and tactile delights, a catalogue of her obsessions, a mirror of her personality. Many visitors recall the experience of edging sideways down the hall because there was scarcely room to move. As Sabine Cotte comments, ‘To have a cup of coffee at Mirka’s, you had to physically move some things from the table and from a chair in order to lay down your cup and have a seat’. (55) After ensconcing myself in my gracious 1920s St Kilda apartment, I said to Mirka, ‘You know, I think I’m becoming house proud’. She was aghast. ‘You are a writer! You cannot become house proud!’
Wellington Street was quite a dark space – like all Mirka’s domiciles. She was not an artist who craved sunshine and vistas. Visiting her at Wellington Street and later at her home at Barkly Street, was to enter a shadowy, atmospheric zone where strange and rare objects could be glimpsed. Where layers of dust were thick. Where silence dominated. Where the blank gaze of dolls and the staring eyes of teddy bears could seem macabre and eerie. All was not cheerful in that place. There were sinister resonances, like the dark side of fairy tales, that promise not safety but fear, alerting the reader to the threats and dangers that can be endemic to magical realms. Be wary! Take care! Myths contain lessons and truths learned at one’s peril. Such allusions, too, were contained in Mirka’s world, offering a contrast with the breezy vitality of her presence. Her home/studio was a tableau vivant and she shone brilliantly in its twilight.
There was one window left open. That was for Pompom, her hefty, male tabby cat. ‘Look at his beautiful balls, Zhaneen!’, Mirka exclaimed. ‘He shouldn’t have balls, Mirka’, I answered crossly. ‘He’s impregnating local cats’. She looked startled. ‘But he is a man!’
In retrospect, I wonder, did Mirka contrive to establish a space – after the shock of leaving her family, after the enormous gap that created – which banished emptiness? Was it a kind of horror vacui? Or did the darkness function as a deep creative zone, a kind of womb-like territory, the original and fecund place of fertility, growth and birth, both literally and symbolically? Mirka was also thoroughly committed to the power of the unconscious mind, that fertile territory whose chief archaeologist was Sigmund Freud who alerted us that our dreams carried complex messages – about sexuality and family - that required analysis to decode.
‘When all is said and done’, Mirka reflected,‘it is still difficult to know how and when a good painting comes. A while ago I heard that a pig has the intelligence of a child of five years old. A lovely painting arrived (Mirka means she created it) with a child and an angel holding a pig. I was very pleased with this painting’. (56) It had arrived from the matrix of her unconscious mind. Though more than one journalist, surrounded in the studio by Mirka’s images and Mirka herself, noted the insistent focus on self that could be read from the ‘sloe-eyed figures in her paintings, to glamorous studio shots from her bohemian youth’. (57) Mirka would not be the first artist to take her own face as subject matter. Frida Kahlo’s oeuvre prized her distinctive physical features. Perhaps the plenitude of such images indicates, on the part of the artist, a constant interrogation of identity and its visceral manifestations.
Amid the turmoil of leaving her husband and her sons (Philippe was studying film in London), and settling in her own home, a fresh burst of inspiration carried Mirka forward. She began to make soft sculptures – dolls. At first, Mirka was unable to draw. ‘As a rule’, Mirka reflected, ‘I do not paint if I am distressed, I like to have a clear mind. I was extremely distressed, and brave, when I left my family’. She found herself ‘cutting out my drawings, and they looked like the paper dolls I used to play with as a child...The dolls were a kind of solid dream: I was enthralled by them’. (58) Did the dolls also represent her ‘lost’ sons, giving her permission to hold and keep them in a way that was not possible in reality? A reality she had brought into being?
To make the dolls Mirka took bedsheets and pillow cases - never new, always used and often begged from friends – which she then machine-sewed, stuffed and painted. The textures of much-washed linen was an inherent part of the doll-making process. ‘I only wanted to work on the bedsheets or pillowcases. It had to be dreams, where people slept on...I remember a lady with about seven children gave me some...from all her little boys’. It was ‘most inspiring and of course to paint on bed clothes is lovely because the material has been washed a lot’. (59)
The dolls proved very popular. In 1971, Mirka exhibited them at Marianne Bailleu’s prestigious Realities Gallery in Toorak. John Reed wrote an introduction. The dolls sold well and earned praise. But Mirka was averse to churning out more merely to make money. ‘I could have made a fortune, as people adored (the dolls)...but I thought it was too good a pleasure for one person and decided to do workshops, sharing my knowledge with people’. (60)
Mirka began to run doll-making workshops that took her through rural Victoria and NSW. Not only did the classes earn some cash but they spread the joy and pleasure that doll-making gave. She also co-ordinated the completion of murals in a variety of public places. Mirka was a natural teacher –astute, organised, encouraging.
Jenny Kee was grateful for Mirka’s mentoring. While staying with Mirka, she encouraged Kee to make a doll. Mirka ‘wanted to coax the artist out of me’, Kee recalls. The process was inspiring. ‘My doll was a totem, symbolising my transformation into an artist’. (61) In 1973, Kee started Flamingo Park, an innovative fashion boutique in Sydney, with fellow fashionista Linda Jackson.
Mirka took her role as an educator very seriously, believing that anyone could be an artist. Mirka herself was the example: she had no art training prior to becoming a painter. Mirka enjoyed the sense of community that teaching offered and it’s one reason why she gained such popularity, making the mourning of her death in 2018 a very public event in Melbourne.
Mirka had a strong extroverted streak. New friends, gossip, hi-jinks, dramas, shared experiences and long lunches washed down with plenty of wine, were as necessary as the quiet times in the studio. Not that Mirka over imbibed. Chateau d’Yquem, a dessert wine, was a favourite. Today a bottle could set you back five hundred dollars. Mirka kept a box of it under her bed. Once I asked her about her relationship with alcohol. She said – fervently - ‘I am afraid of it’. Given that two of her dearest and most talented friends – Charles Blackman and John Perceval - virtually destroyed themselves with drink makes explicable her attitude.
In 1973, Mirka began a daring new series - erotic drawings boldly sketched in charcoal. While today images such as the smiling bestial lovers in The Grizzly Bear is Huge and Wild (1973, Private Collection) seem merely tender and amusing, at the time they were quite scandalous – especially from a woman artist. It’s interesting to observe how, despite the sudden rush of activity by women artists in the early to mid-1970s, few committed themselves to sexual iconography. When they did it was often critical such as Ann Newmarch’s series of prints Suburban Reflections (1973) where images of naked women gleaned from advertisements were contrasted with gruesome photographs from the Vietnam War.
While Joy Hester’s 1955-56 Lovers series, showed the coupling between a man and a woman as having a violent, claustrophobic quality, Mirka displayed intercourse as gentle and playful, and mutually enjoyable. The lovers are part-animal, part-human but delightfully so. Perhaps another resonance from the happiness she experienced with Ross? Once Mirka showed me photographs of her first lovemaking experience with Ross on a trip to Sydney. Mirka looked very fetching in black lacy bra and knickers. I was slightly taken aback. Once you knew Mirka, you realised she did not often keep secrets. She liked to shock but, equally, she liked to tell the truth. Her truth.
In 1975, the business-friendship with Marianne Baillieu enticed Mirka to move next door to the gallery’s new premises in a renovated church hall in Jackson Street, Toorak. Mirka lived in the cottage which had served as the vicarage. When the relationship with Marianne soured, Mirka shifted to Rankins Lane, off Little Bourke Street, in the CBD. The 1970s were a time when many artists were reclaiming the city as an artists’ space and they moved into the lofts in its maze of lanes.
It was a nice reminder for Mirka that in the 1950s she and Georges had spearheaded a return to the city as a cultural zone. It had been a milieu that Melbourne artists had enjoyed since the 19th century up until World War II. In the 1930s and 40s, its denizens had included Sam Atyeo, Sidney Nolan, Noel Counihan, Tucker and Hester, as well as a plenitude of galleries, bookshops and cafes.
Mirka told me she left Toorak because she felt under pressure from Marianne who wished her to show more often. Mirka was rigorous about how regularly she exhibited. To have too many exhibitions was to diminish one’s focus and integrity. She was also very attached to her work – especially the dolls – and did not wish to part with them. Living close to Realities also meant various celebrities and visitors would be taken across to Mirka’s, interrupting her work rhythm. (I must confess that I often dropped by. I’d call out, ‘Mirka! If you’re working, tell me to go away!’ She never did.)
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