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Leonard Joel

The Magical Studio of Mirka Mora

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The Magical Studio of Mirka Mora

This auction presents an extraordinary opportunity to delve into the life of one our nation’s best-loved artists. We recently spoke to Mirka’s son, William, about what it was like to grow up with Mirka as a mother, and also, some of his favourite pieces in the auction.

1. MIRKA IS ONE OF MELBOURNE’S (IF NOT, AUSTRALIA’S!) BEST-LOVED ARTISTS. WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP WITH HER AS A MOTHER?

Mirka was certainly unconventional as a mother! When I was a child, we lived in Grosvenor Chambers at 9 Collins Street, the top end of Collins Street. In those days, the building was made up of artist studios – Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton once had studios there – and during the time we lived there, Albert Tucker and Wolfgang Sievers had studios there.

We moved into Grosvenor Chambers in the 1950s and it was an open plan living / studio space – we slept upstairs and my mother’s studio was downstairs. There were always lots of visitors and parties and often, my brother and I would come down in the morning after a big party and we’d slide our hands down the back of the sofas for spare change. Growing up, I don’t think we saw our lives as being ‘different’, but we always felt it was exciting!

In 1967, we moved to Tolarno’s where we each had our own rooms. We had a lot of freedom and came and went as we pleased, but my father had one rule – we all had to be round the dinner table at 7pm every night. That was the only rule! Again, there were lots of gatherings and dinner parties and I remember Mirka would often hand out keys at the end of the night – so their friends could stay at the hotel.

Another memory from childhood is Mirka picking me and my brother up from school. She would wear her colourful, hand-embroidered clothes and to us, she looked like an exotic gypsy! So, my brother and I went to Myer to buy her a twin set and begged her to pick us up from school wearing that instead!

2. MIRKA SEEMED TO POSSESS A WONDERFUL JOIE DE VIVRE THAT WAS INFECTIOUS. DO YOU THINK THAT’S WHY SHE WAS SO LOVED BY SO MANY PEOPLE?

Yes, her vivacity and her uniqueness drew people to her – but also, she always had time, for anyone and everyone – time to talk to people. She felt everyone had the potential to be an artist and she would encourage people and inspire them. She worked in adult education for a time and I often have people tell me ‘your mother inspired us to believe in ourselves’ and ‘your mother changed our life 40 years ago’. She had almost 70 years of making art, touching and inspiring people. I think that, after her shocking war experiences in France, she wanted to make the most of her life and concentrate on the positives. It was a great quality that she possessed.

She always said to me, ‘Oh, you’ll have fun when I’m not here,’ as she filed all of her letters in books. That was very Mirka; she loved to make mischief, to amuse and provoke people – but always in a kind way. She belonged to everyone and that’s something you grow used to when you have a famous parent, particularly one who was as loved as much as Mirka was. But I gain inspiration from the fact that she belonged to everyone. Her art continues to give people immense pleasure. She will live on forever in her art.

3. MIRKA AND GEORGES WERE KEY FIGURES IN THE POST-WAR MELBOURNE ART SCENE. WHAT WAS IT LIKE GROWING UP AROUND ARTISTS SUCH AS CHARLES BLACKMAN, AND OTHERS FROM THE HEIDE CIRCLE?

Our home was always a very busy place! And Mirka was always, always working on her art. Often, when you grow up amongst it, you don’t think it’s that different – but as we became older we understood how incredible it was to grow up surrounded by so much creativity, with artists like Charles Blackman, Albert Tucker and John Perceval, and others from Heide – their enthusiasm for art definitely rubbed off on us.

4. YOU FOLLOWED MIRKA INTO THE ART WORLD. DID YOU EVER CONSIDER ANOTHER CAREER, OR WAS THIS AN INEVITABLE PATH FOR YOU?

It was, I think, inevitable. As I said, as I became older I realised what an incredible privilege it was to grow up surrounded by many of the artists who really shaped Australian at history – amazing artists – and it became a very natural path for me to take.

5. WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING ALONGSIDE YOUR MOTHER, AS HER GALLERIST, FOR SO MANY YEARS?

Mirka was once asked what her advice to young artists would be and she said, ‘that’s simple, give birth to your own art dealer!’ I think that sums it up really. It was wonderful. I built Mora galleries in Richmond in 1999 and Mirka lived next door. It was lovely to see mum every day and to go into her studio any time. She would often ask for my opinion of her latest painting so I would just walk over and we’d chat.

Living next door to her dealer, all she had to worry about was her shopping – which inspired the volume of this auction! – and of course her art. I have memories of trucks arriving with her new purchases which there never seemed to be any space for as far as I could see – but somehow, she always found space!

Interestingly, I have sold a lot of her work over the years, but I notice that her work very rarely appears on the open market…people tend to keep their ‘Mirka’ for life.

6. THIS AUCTION, THE MAGICAL STUDIO OF MIRKA MORA, OFFERS AN INSIGHT INTO THE HEART OF MIRKA’S LIFE; HER STUDIO. WAS IT IMPORTANT TO YOU TO PRESENT HER STUDIO IN ITS ENTIRETY?

Yes, it was very important. I want people to have a glimpse of the amazing world she lived in – which was unconventional in nature – and I think that to be able to present that vision to people is rare. Her living and artistic environment was combined – she’d often roll out of bed and go straight to her easel. Sometimes I would drop by her studio in the afternoon and she would be there, at her easel, painting in her pyjamas. She loved to be surrounded by all of the objects she loved, and her home was bursting at the seams – but she knew where every object, every piece of furniture, every book lived and could go to it in a moment. Everything she surrounded herself with was significant in some way and inspired her art – her antique doll collection, her books – she read Greek and French literature. She would always say, ‘I need this for my work!’

The auction includes objects from her everyday life – her teapot, her pepper grinder, her crockery – and she loved these objects as much as she loved her art. She would never have a dishwasher – she used to say to me that she loved to wash dishes the next morning as it would remind her of the conversations from the night before….

If we can recreate that magic it will be a fabulous insight and will reveal what a remarkable person she was.

7. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE PIECE IN THE AUCTION, OR A PIECE WHICH HOLDS PARTICULAR SIGNIFICANCE?

I love the large mural. Large works like this are extremely rare in Mirka’s almost 70 years of making art. In fact, this is the larger of only two uncovered in her studio since her passing in August last year.

It is a remarkable painting from the early 1970s combining both paint and charcoal. For me the key to this painting is the central figure, in charcoal, holding her child. Is she pulling it back or letting it go out into the world? To me, it represents Mirka’s world of magic and wonder; of being flooded in colour and full of hope, joy, love and all that is positive in humanity. It invites continued looking as one scans the surface for the new and beautiful vignettes that appear, constantly adding to the intrigue of Mirka’s unique vision of the world.

As an aside, the child reminds me of early drawings Mirka did of a young Sweeney Reed, obviously this work was done at the time of Georges and Mirka’s intense friendship with John and Sunday Reed at Heide and their immersion in all things about the importance of love and art in the world.

8. THERE ARE SEVERAL OF MIRKA’S SOFT-SCULPTURE DOLLS AND FIGURES IN THE AUCTION, WHICH I THINK HAVE ALWAYS BROUGHT MIRKA’S PAINTINGS TO LIFE. WHEN DID SHE BEGIN CREATING HER DOLLS?

She began making them in the late 70s and 80s – and only for a short time because they were so hard to make – and yes, they were 3D versions of the characters and creatures in her paintings. As her eyesight deteriorated,

she could not hand stitch them anymore, and she insisted on hand-stitching all of them. She would use any material she could find around our home – I would often come home and shout, ‘my sheet has gone!’ ‘my pillow case has gone!’ She would draw on the fabric and then cut it up and sew her drawings to make them in to dolls. They bring to life, in some strange way, those unique characters but I think that they exist very much on their own too. Somewhere, in her home studio – and in this auction – there are books on stitching and embroidery. She always researched everything she did in her art before she embarked on anything new. The research was part of the artistic journey for her – whether it was for her drawings, her paintings, her mosaics or her sculptures – she would always spend time on research before she began.


Melbourne Auction Sunday 3 March, 12pm
333 Malvern Road, South Yarra VIC 3141

Melbourne Viewing
Wednesday 27 February, 9am-8pm
Thursday 28 February, 11am-4pm
Friday 1 March, 11am-4pm
Saturday 2 March, 11am-4pm

Enquiries
Anna Grassham
Head of Modern Design
03 8825 5637
anna.grassham@leonardjoel.com.au

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