Mirka Mora: Pas De Deux – Drawing and Dolls

A noted colourist, Mirka Mora’s (1928-2018) works are often bright and bold, illuminating life in art just as she did in reality. Having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, the Parisian-born artist, along with her husband Georges, and infant son Philippe emigrated from post-war France to Australia in 1951 and found refuge in Melbourne, settling rapidly in its bohemian cultural scene. The decision to move to the Victorian city was swayed by Henri Murger’s book Scenes de la Vie de Boheme (1851) in which the protagonist, a photographer, frequently visited Melbourne to earn money and returned to France to help his friends – poets, musicians and painters. Mora was inspired.

From their apartment/studio in the ‘Paris End’ of Collins Street to their landmark European-style cafés and restaurants, the pair attracted a new wave of artists, writers, collectors and intellectuals, many of whom went on to become luminaries of Australian art; John and Sunday Reed (founders of Heide now Heide Museum of Modern Art), Fred Williams, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Charles Blackman. Simultaneously, Mora’s own artistic career began to thrive – remaining firm for the next six decades to become a prominent figure in Australia’s creative landscape.

Mirka Mora, Untitled (Serpent, Girl with Striped Hair, Little Devil), c.1974, mixed media. Photograph: Robyn Lea. Courtesy William Mora Galleries, Melbourne

With a primary focus on painting, Mora broadened her practice to include a wide range of media: ceramics, embroidery, soft sculpture, public mosaic murals scattered across the city, as well as drawings and doll making. For Mora the latter went hand-in-hand; ‘My dolls are my drawings in three-dimensions.’ In celebration of the artist’s life, specifically these two art forms, Heide Museum of Modern Art presents ‘Mirka Mora: Pas De Deux – Drawing and Dolls’, an exhibition curated by Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan showcasing works on paper and soft sculpture dolls from the artist’s home and studio, many on display for the first time. These works offer a glimpse into Mora’s personal world, one filled with hybrid creatures derived from fairy tales, folk art, surrealism, and the artist’s vivid daydreams intermingled. As a whole, they create a compelling portrait of the hidden self; as well as the inner aesthetics of the imagination.

Mirka Mora, Untitled (sketchbook page), 1985, fibre-tipped pen and gouache on paper. Courtesy William Mora Galleries, Melbourne

Mora liked to make the invisible visible, conjuring images of hauntingly, wide-eyed children, dogs, cats and birds as well as angels, devils and snakes interacting with human-animal, composite forms, in imaginary or reinterpreted landscapes. Depicted in a sensuous, naive style, these works subdue the melancholy with ‘a certain Chagall-like joie de vivre’. Her black-and-white drawings of charcoal or ink, as well as her colourful compositions found in her sketchbooks, show love and nostalgia for childhood innocence and are recurrent themes throughout her oeuvre, often represented as cherub figures.

Mirka Mora, Coco My Pet, 1960, 1987, fibre-tipped pen on paper. Courtesy William Mora Galleries, Melbourne

‘Her colourful, sensuous iconography has emerged from the breadth of her interests and reading, her love of classical mythology, her desire to reclaim and make sense of childhood and familial relations, and her recognition of the power of sexual desire,’ writes Mora’s son William in an online homage. These themes are evident in her inclusion of serpents or beasts – frequently representing sex or love – interlocking hands with a human doll. Her charcoal drawing Bird with brood (1958) shows a mama bird with her human offspring, a mirror of her own family, while her hybrid images such as those seen in her Mermaid dolls or her human-animal drawings intersect her fantasies with real issues such as race, gender and identity, as well as concepts of tradition, knowledge, emotion, and innovation.

Mirka Mora, Bird with Brood, 1958, charcoal on paper, 49 x 76cm © Estate of Mirka Mora. Courtesy William Mora Galleries, Melbourne

Mora’s repertoire of themes is dominated by the idea of duality. Implicit of its title, ‘Mirka Mora: Pas De Deux – Drawing and Dolls’, much like the interplay or crossbreed of her subjects, reflects this polarity in a ‘dance duet’ of mediums and motifs. Whether construed as a reflection of her struggles in Nazi-occupied France, the experiences of inequality by women artists at the time, or a socio-political commentary on modern society as a whole, Mora’s works are embedded with positivity, woven in the fabric of her work and seen here in her drawings and Eastern European inspired dolls, and their narratives.

‘Mirka Mora: Pas De Deux – Drawing and Dolls’ was organised to mark the artist’s 90th birthday. Following her death in August of this year, the exhibition is a tribute to the extraordinary, indelible life and career of this French bohême.

Heide Museum of Modern Art
Until 24 March, 2019
Melbourne