Reviewed by Angela Marie
What do the following celebrities, rock stars, super stars, politicians, oligarchs, musicians, artists and actors have in common?
Jean Shrimpton, Gregory Peck, Clyde Packer and Andrew Peacock. Charles Blackman, Winifred Atwell, Maurice Chevalier, Bert Newton and Bob Dylan. Andres Segovia, Don Chipp, Marcel Marceau, Zoe Caldwell and Fred Astaire. Ava Gardener, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich. Mick Jagger. They are but a portion of patrons who enjoyed the gastronomic delights of Mirka and Georges Mora.
The authors boldly claim, “The impact of Mirka and Georges Mora on Australian art and food has been remarkable. Arriving in Melbourne in 1951 from Paris, they energised local society and artistic landscapes.” Acquaintance Bailleau Myer, son of Sidney Myer, the founder of the Myer emporium, described Georges as “a man who made Melbourne into a city”. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, concurs, offering condolences on the recent passing of Mirka, ” Together Mirka and Georges helped transform 1950’s Melbourne into the creative, cultural and cosmopolitan city it is today.” Who were Mirka Mora and Georges Mora?
In Mirka & Georges, authors Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan have compiled more than an intriguing combined biography. They have documented a wondrous time capsule through which we can reflect on past struggles, persecution, the ravages of war and the hope for a better future. They have written a story that could be historical romantic fiction were it not real. And they have done this through three portals – the life story, the art, and the food, intertwined and entwined, echoing the recurrent serpent theme in Mirka’s works.
But let’s step back in time. Everyone has a beginning and a story. We learn that Mirka Zelik was born in Paris to Jewish parents in 1928, displaying her vitality and liveliness from an early age, reared by a mother who was an inventive role model. We read how Mirka escaped the fate of many French Jews during World War Two by grasping and acting on opportunity, a habit she would continue. Abandoning her schooling and enduring electric shock therapy, Mirka retreated to seaside Brittany to work in an orphanage. Again the stars aligned for Mirka who found herself being swept away by a chivalrous and attentive chef de bureau. She had not yet entered her theatre studies course or given serious consideration to her art.
Gunter Morawski, born in 1913 to affluent Jewish parents, was a German of Polish descent. His morphosis to Georges Mora comes via his remarkable intelligence and aptitude for languages, his enrolment at medical school (including lectures in physics by Albert Einstein), his witnessing of ritualised book-burning in Berlin and by acting on his father’s pleas for him to leave Germany for the safety of France. To tell more of his days in the French Foreign Legion and smuggling operations with Marcel Marceau would be unfair to the reader.
Fast forward to 1951. Leaving behind post-war France and after sampling New York, the Mora family, Mirka , Georges and Philippe, plant roots in Melbourne, a decision seemingly driven by Mirka’s romantic and emotive overwhelming of spirit and adventure. Mirka & Georges invites us with intimacy into the early days. Picture Mirka sewing bespoke gowns in her home in Collins Street and Georges managing a matzo factory in a city where coffee consisted of boiled milk with coffee essence. As fate and the stars would have it, Mirka’s gown making would be an unlikely link into the avant-garde world of Australian art. Her introduction to Sunday Reed (of Heide fame) appears to be the catalyst that created a whirlpool and culture of bohemian friendships with Georges and Mirka at the epicentre.
Mirka and Georges’ Collins Street rooms become the place to be, whether drinking, laughing, talking, consorting, debating or planning and plotting, and eating. Art was very much at the forefront of the agenda. Always room at the inn for Sunday and John Reed, and the Heide art clique, John Perceval, Arthur Boyd, Joy Hester, Danila Vassilieff and Charles Blackman. Art associations formed. Exhibitions opened in the Moras’ rooms. John Olsen, Clifton Pugh, and Mirka herself, amongst others. The abundance of friends and goodwill was stretched to the limit. The solution for Mirka – open a little cafe. The idea that grew to become Mirka Cafe became then, in succession, Balzac Restaurant and, ultimately, Tolarno French Bistro. Along with Pellegrini’s and the University Coffee Lounge, Mirka Cafe had one of the first Gaggia espresso machines in Melbourne. But only Mirka Cafe had Mirka and Georges’ beckoning French cuisine, and Mirka’s flair.
Mirka & Georges tells of their journeys to becoming the influencers they did become and about staying true to self and to dreams and visions. The authors, Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, set a huge task for themselves and carried this off with aplomb. We are with Mirka and Georges on their adventure, knowing this to be real through the meticulous footnoting which never intrudes but reassures. We stare into Mirka’s artwork and dolls looking for the person inside. Looking into the wide open eyes and reflecting on Mirka’s capacity for empathy and joy. We recognise the complex naivety and uniqueness of Mirka’s art, and are encouraged and warmed by the recurrent motifs of angels, nature and love. We look at the determination of Georges and see the development of that side of art that allows artists to continue to grow. Gallery space, commissions, exhibitions, sales.
The authors, Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan, have incorporated memories from Philippe, William and Tiriel Mora, and from celebrity chef, Tony Bilson. They have achieved a fine balance between tale, photography, artwork and recipe, wrapped in a bold blue Mirka signature colour. And what food! Recipes include Georges’ moules marinieres, Mirka’s coq au vin, her chocolate mousse and her mother’s walnut cake. Claude’s creme caramel from the first French chef at the Balzac. The origins of recipes have been respectfully acknowledged, including the improvisations that replicate recipes for which no written form exists. The recipes reveal dishes that promise to be blissfully satisfying while utilising readily-sourced ingredients, only needing to be cooked in the spirit of generosity and love.
It has been a privilege and a delight to review this book; a book for the modern historian, the art lover, the artist, the cook. A book to recommend to friends. A gift to be treasured.
Lesley Harding has been a curator at the Heide Museum of Modern Art since 2005, regularly publishing and lecturing on modernist and contemporary Australian art. She co-authored Cubism & Australian Art with Sue Cramer, and curated the Georgia O’Keefe, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith exhibition which toured Australia and the United States during 2016 and 2017.
Kendrah Morgan has been a curator at Heide since 2003. Previous to this, she has had experience in the commercial gallery sector and has lectured in art history, with particular interest in Renaissance and Baroque art.
Lesley and Kendrah, senior curators at Heide, have co-authored three other works, Sunday’s Kitchen: Food and Living at Heide, Sunday’s Garden: Growing Heide andModern Love:The Lives of John and Sunday Reed. Although they did not meet Georges, they knew Mirka well, having curated solo exhibitions of her work and from seeking her knowledge and understanding of Heide and the early years. Mirka & Georges is a salute to Mirka and Georges, and to their friendship with Mirka.
By Lesley Harding and Kendrah Morgan
The Miegunyah Press/ Museum of Modern Art Heide
ISBN 9780522872200 (hardback)
ISBN 9780522872217 (ebook)