From Holocaust survivor to iconic artist: Mirka Mora retrospective opens in St Kilda

Family gathering in the dream park, 2008. Courtesy William Mora Galleries ©The Estate of Mirka Mora

Mirka Mora’s famously colourful, uplifting art spanning a 70-year career celebrates love, hope and resilience.

Mirka Mora aged two, 1930.The late Mirka Mora (1928-2018) has made a vast contribution to Melbourne’s artistic, cultural, and cosmopolitan identity. She was the Parisian daughter of an antique dealer Jewish Lithuanian father, and a seamstress Romanian Jewish mother.

A new exhibition which focuses on that history, MIRKA, has launched at The Jewish Museum of Australia in St Kilda in collaboration with William Mora Galleries. The exhibition brings together 200 never exhibited before artworks, letters, sketchbooks, diaries and recorded interviews from the Jewish Holocaust Centre archives, including a voice recording of Mirka describing her life, which guides visitors through the exhibition.

Despite having around 80 solo exhibitions since 1956, including major exhibitions at Heide Museum of Modern Art, this is the biggest show yet of the much-loved artist’s work.

Jessica Bram“Mirka’s enduring voice and vibrant legacy is so much a part of our Australian Jewish story, but also profoundly part of our broader national consciousness,” observes Jewish Museum of Australia director and CEO, Jessica Bram. “Her tale is all of our tales – especially for those whose families journeyed to Australia in search of a new life, a fresh start, a home that would provide safety, security and comfort.”

The retrospective is made even more potent given the artist’s harrowing war-time experiences.

In August 1942, Mirka was arrested and deported with her mother and two younger sisters in Nazi-occupied Paris to Pithiviers internment camp 80 kilometres south of the country’s capital. While there, they were on a list to be deported to Auschwitz when her father succeeded in arranging their release at the last minute. Then, from 1942 to 1945, the family evaded capture by hiding in a tiny town in Burgundy.

Mirka went on to marry Jewish Resistance fighter, Georges Mora in 1947 (Georges helped smuggle Jewish children out of the country while working at a Jewish orphanage).

The couple emigrated to Melbourne in 1951 and swiftly became leaders of the city’s bohemian art scene at their Collins Street art studio where Mirka was a painter and Georges an art dealer, befriending other prominent art figures such as John and Sunday Reed, Sidney Nolan, Charles and Barbara Blackman, Fred Williams, John and Mary Perceval, Arthur Boyd, Joy Hester, Albert Tucker, and a visiting Francis Bacon.

Gathering people around a table to share a rustic French feast was also their calling. The couple launched Mirka Café in Exhibition Street, The Balzac in East Melbourne and in 1965, opened the much-loved Tolarno hotel, gallery restaurant in St Kilda, which they ran and lived above until 1970, making it the “go to” French bistro for Melburnians at the time.

Jessica hopes this exhibition pays tribute to Mirka “in all her fullness, to her life so well lived, her love and clutter. The experience we designed needed to be intimate, sensitive, colourful, immersive, layered and personal – giving insight and inspiration, though not saying too much in our own curatorial voice.

“Ultimately, we hope we’ve created a celebration of Mirka in her own words. It is her remarkable spirit, resilience, hope and love that remains indelibly and colourfully imprinted on the world she leaves behind.”

MIRKA is on until 19 December 2021 at the Jewish Museum of Australia, and entry is by timed sessions.

Image gallery

Click on the image thumbnails below to view some of the artwork.