Mirka Mora by Kendrah Morgan

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

A sensual celebration of life, love and personal history, Untitled (Tolarno mural) c 1966 is an early masterpiece in the remarkable career of French émigré artist Mirka Mora, whose contribution to Australian art is still to be fully recognised.

Mora arrived in Melbourne from Paris with her husband Georges in 1951 and the couple became catalysing figures in the city’s creative milieu. She soon found her metier as a painter, and mounted her first exhibition in 1958 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art. Mora mined a vast array of sources for her work: from literature, classical mythology, folklore, and high and low art past and present, to the rich material of her own life—including her early memories of the Holocaust, and her experiences of marriage, motherhood and secret loves.

In 1964 Mora and Georges acquired the Tolarno Hotel in St Kilda, where they established a French bistro and set up residence. For the first time Mora had a dedicated studio and her work rapidly increased in scale and complexity.

The Tolarno mural, a visual feast of interwoven figures and motifs animated by detailed patterning and vivid colour, was produced at this vital turning point. Conceptually and technically assured, it reflects Mora’s newfound sense of freedom and confidence to expand her creative vision. While it gives an impression of teeming profusion, the composition has a strong underlying logic and order. Six large dreamlike charcoal figures lead the eye along the picture plane and form a visual scaffold upon which the other elements are built up in overlapping layers. Repeated colour accents add a sense of rhythm and movement that continues in the undulating forms of a river and a giant serpent gliding across the painting. Together with the decorative floral borders, these devices unify the whole in a manner reminiscent of an ancient mosaic frieze.

The hybrid creatures that populate this realm pay homage to Mora’s Eastern European heritage, recalling both Matryoshka nesting dolls and the characters and fantastical beasts of traditional Russian prints depicting folktales or fables. Cameo portraits of Mora’s friends and loved ones appear in the midst of the activity, including arts patron Sunday Reed and her adopted son Sweeney, depicted in profile with leaves in his hair. The plethora of detail rewards close looking: as Mora herself observed, ‘Sometimes I think it must be as good to “read” paintings as to make them’.(1)

The completed mural was hung on the wall of the Tolarno restaurant and became an important precursor to a major cycle of wall murals that the artist created there between 1968 and 1970, and which remain in situ today—a much‑loved part of her legacy to Melbourne. Discovered in her studio after her death in 2018, the Tolarno mural is in many ways a compendium of all that Mora had learnt, assimilated and distilled, and a testament to the extent of her extraordinary imagination and creative powers.

(1) Mirka Mora, Wicked but virtuous: My life, Penguin, Melbourne, 2000, p 110.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Morgan, Kendrah. "Mirka Mora" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 260–261.

KENDRAH MORGAN is Senior Curator, Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne.

Mirka Mora appears in