First published on 18 Nov 2011. Updated on 14 Jun 2012.
She’s come a long way for a girl who once confused a penis for a duck. “In Jewish cooking, they stuff the neck of the duck and it’s a great delicacy, so when I saw my father naked for the first time, I thought, ‘What is he doing with the duck between his legs?’ I’d never seen a penis before, you see.” And so began the interminable curiosity of one extraordinarily inquisitive, cheekily cavalier Mirka Mora.
It’s no surprise Mirka deems it “criminal to live such a short life”, given she spent three weeks staring down death in WWII concentration camps with her young Jewish family. In a sheer display of miracle, her father managed to free them, and in Mirka, ignited an insatiable zest for living. “You have to shock people so they become alive and they discover themselves,” she says, perhaps as explanation as to her disdain for boredom in mid-50s Melbourne. The 60s, during which she opened St Kilda's Tolarno Hotel & Gallery, were no less zesty. “Charles (Blackman) and I were babysitting the Tolarno while (husband) Georges was overseas, and we were bored, so I cut a hole in the nipples of my black velvet top – two nice little pink rose buttons on the black velvet - and took the money from the diners… some people didn’t even pay for their meals they were so shocked!”
The self-taught painter admits her flagrant disobedience, to the point that a “stupid doctor” once administered her an electric shock. “I’m a person who doesn’t like rules. I like to choose what I want to do.... discover things for myself. And so after a lifetime of painting I’m understanding a little bit… at the end you are alone in front of the canvas and you just have to do it.”
And do it she does, the now great-grandmother still painting morning, noon and night in her gloriously shambolic Richmond apartment. “I’ve always painted, all my life. On our honeymoon, my husband would go and play ping-pong with English girls while I was painting in my hotel room.” She hints at the openness of their marriage – “you could read the future from that couldn’t you?” – in which they shared their love with multiple partners.
Despite all her ingenuous honesty, she is surprisingly tightlipped on her current lover, revealing him only to be an “erudite” and “special” man with whom she has spent the last 40 years. Still, she remains a very sexually charged woman. “Nature doesn’t care about you one bit. You have to be more intelligent than nature, you have to be the boss of your brain… and the brain is in your pussy, in your arms, in your neck, in your throat… you have to be the boss of your sexuality."
For the incredible feats of a woman who has seen so much, 83-year-old Mirka insists she still has much to explore. “Religion is abominable, because it stops your brain from thinking… be yourself at any price, protect your personality and your learning – we are in a wonderland and we don’t know it. Everything is sheer wonder, all your feelings are sheer wonder. But I still have to die and that’s a bit of nuisance.”
1945 Paints first ever piece of a dead girl’s tomb
1951 Relocates from Paris to Melbourne, aged 21, with husband Georges
1953 Acquires studio at 9 Collins St, Melbourne’s infamous Grosvenor Chambers
1954 Opens iconic restaurant and gallery, Mirka Café, on Exhibition St
1958 Establishes Balzac restaurant in East Melbourne
1966 Opens Tolarno Hotel & Gallery in St Kilda, one of Melbourne’s first commercial galleries
1979 Invited to paint a Melbourne tram by the Ministry Of Arts
1985 Commissioned by the Ministry of Transport to create the Flinders Street Station mural
1999 Exhibits a major 50 year retrospective at Heide Museum of Modern Art, which 16,000 people attend
2002 Awarded France’s highest artist honour, the Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres