First Published in the Australiasian Post, 1999
"Wicked but Virtuous" is a perfect reflection of the idiosyncrasies, naked honesty and joie de vivre that make Mirka Mora the naughty girl of Melbourne art.
Straight from the heart, as everything is in her life, "mah auto-bee-oh-graph-ee" is as quirky and delightful as Mirka herself. It helps if one has heard Mirka speak, because the book is completely in her voice and has not been polished and straightened by a team of editors and publishers. For those who have not heard or seen Mirka perform, an open mind should compensate for lapses in correct English grammar, syntax and structure.
The 330 pages and scores of paintings and pictures have plenty for everyone. Mirka is an inveterate name-dropper, so anybody who is anyone gets a mention - moreso if they were involved in the arts and visited Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s when Mirka ran her cafés and restaurants with her husband Georges Mora.
Marcel Marceau, Robert Helpmann, the entire Heide gang of artists are there, especially the Blackmans, Reeds, Joy Hester, Sid Nolan, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd. Adolph Hitler, Bert Newton, Bill Sneddon and The Beatles also get a mention for their part in Mirka's life.
And there are those who are specifically not named, like the London gallery director who selected Mirka for a show and after dinner attempted to coerce a young man to his hotel room. The latter begged Mirka to save him, which she did, but then found her work dropped from the important British exhibition.The then Victorian Liberal Attorney-General (1955-1967), Arthur Rylah, would enjoy a meal and a drink at Balzac restaurant, sometimes leaving after the 10pm liquor licence ran out. As soon as Victoria's first law officer departed, the police would raid the premises to see if liquor was being served, illegally.
"Wicked but Virtuous" is dedicated to her close friends Neilma and Carrillo Gantner "and to all the men I've loved", but in the chapter on her men she confesses to only a handful or two of lovers over a career in which her reputation as a femme fatale was somewhat grander.
In fact the book dwells more on her children, Philippe the film-maker, William the gallery director and Tiriel the actor and her grandchildren - as any good Yiddishe mumma's autobiography should. The three boys are central to so many of the events in her life, even though asked by Maurice Chevalier if she had to choose between her art or her family, she nominated her art. While the chapter headings indicate a logical order to her 72 years, Mirka does not depend upon a uniform concept of time. Reflections can jump backwards or forwards a decade or two.
In an interview with the Australian Jewish News last year she said: "I don't understand what you do with time. I didn't realise it is 50 years. It is half a century. Time maybe, doesn't even exist, for all we know.
"In an appendix to the autobiography, so to speak, the letter to her womb, surgically removed in 1993, is as poignant as it is unusual.
Unstated but clear from her writing, Mirka is very well-read and a great fan of resistance fighter and key existentialist Albert Camus. She can appear pretty and fluffy pink, but there also lurks a marvellous black humor. Accidentally spilling a tin of paint in Perth she formed the puddle into a mermaid and departed the scene. The newspapers had many questions about the mysterious appearance of the image and debate over who would clean up the mess. Mirka remained silent.
"Just a little havoc in the newspapers for a few days, say I with glee." Appropos nothing very much, she ponders the beginning of time: "If Adam had been an Aboriginal man, he would have eaten the snake. And all the world would be better, methinks."
There are scores of images including a stunning full frontal nude of Mirka (taken in 1950) and another looking every bit the Parisienne outside her apartment at 9 Collins Street Melbourne, before the developers came to town. There are 40 plates of her images, mostly in full color. The only disappointment is the absence of photographs of her tram and her most important murals.
Towards the end of her book, Mirka notes that she can no longer see the hole in the sewing machine needle and that age is catching up with her. In the epilogue she is preparing to leave her home in Barkly Street, St Kilda, with its massive avocado tree and total chaotic clutter and move to a new studio apartment next to William's gallery in Richmond and pondering the end of life.
"How? I am thinking about it and it better be good, maybe a big party and filmed while I say goodbye and thankyou."
And a page later: "Now that the time of death approaches, I roam through the universe as a little bit of dust looking to plant myself in a star and grow again one day somewhere."
Mirka's autobiography allows all of us to have a little of her wickedness and virtuousness planted in our souls.
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