Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mora, Georges (1913–1992)

by Christopher Heathcote

This article was published online in 2017

Georges Mora, by Jacqueline Mitelman, 1988

Georges Mora, by Jacqueline Mitelman, 1988

National Library of Australia, 13145318

Georges Mora (1913–1992), gallery director and restaurateur, was born on 26 June 1913 at Leipzig, Germany, and named Günther, son of Jewish parents Maximillian Morawski, company director, and his wife Suzie, neé Fuchs. In the early 1930s, when a medical student, Günther fled from Germany owing to Nazi persecution. Arriving in Paris, he found steady work as a patents clerk. The fall of France (1940) in World War II saw him change his Polish-Jewish name to evade detection by the authorities. Georges Morat or Mora, as he now called himself, became involved with the Resistance, smuggling refugees and Allied airmen across Europe. Danger was palpable and left him a troubled sleeper for the rest of his life, springing awake at the slightest noise. 

Following the liberation, Mora worked for Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, an association that assisted orphaned Jewish children. In Paris in mid-December 1947 he married Mirka Madeleine Zelik, a French-born Jewish refugee. Their belief that a devastated Europe was no place to raise a family and mounting fears of an atomic war prompted their migration to Australia in 1951.

Settling in Melbourne, the Moras rented a large, disused sculptor’s studio in Collins Street as accommodation and Georges began work at a noodle factory. Their address brought them into contact with modern artists, and the couple was asked if the Contemporary Art Society could exhibit in their basement flat. Works by (Sir) Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Perceval, Albert Tucker, Charles Blackman, Roger Kemp, Fred Williams, and Danila Vassilieff were included in the Anti-Royal Tour Exhibition (1954). Georges was drawn into the CAS, forming close friendships with painters, as well as with the collectors John and Sunday Reed. He served as CAS president (1956–59), and in 1958 became a councillor of its offshoot, the Museum of Modern Art of Australia.

In the meantime Mora had entered the hospitality business. After briefly running a café in Exhibition Street (known to friends and artists as Mirka’s Café), he opened the celebrated East Melbourne bistro Café Balzac which introduced Melburnians to authentic French provincial cooking. Dining was conjoined with art. He hired a French-trained English chef and commissioned Boyd and Perceval to produce the crockery, while the artists Mike Brown, Colin Lanceley, and Ross Crothall made works for a feature wall. In 1965 he relocated, purchasing the Tolarno Hotel in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, to accommodate their home, a restaurant, a private hotel, and a gallery. The restaurant’s décor was striking, as Mirka—assisted by Martin Sharp—painted the walls with images of angels and magical creatures reminiscent of Eastern European folk arts.

By 1967 Mora had converted a spacious room at the hotel’s rear into a splendid exhibition venue. Tolarno Galleries had an instant impact on the local art scene. He mixed exhibitions of established artists with shows by young painters, exhibiting in his first months Dale Hickey, John Peart, and Robert Hunter. As a rising art dealer, he also travelled to Europe to organise annual displays of graphic work by modern masters, beginning with lithographs by Renoir. Usually attired in an understated—but tailored—dark suit, Mora sported a flamboyant necktie carefully knotted in the Continental manner with a five-move ‘nicky.’ Exhibitions drew artists to Tolarno, although Mora’s buoyant personality was the real hook. His eyes ever sparkled mischievously and, with a warm grin that some thought too innocent to be true, he exuded generosity. If you were young, broke, and an artist, he offered a meal on the house.

Mora sold the private hotel at Tolarno in 1969. Five years later fellow restaurateur Leon Massoni took over the dining room allowing Mora to concentrate on the gallery. In 1979 he relocated Tolarno Galleries to South Yarra. He was now a key figure on the national art scene, becoming advisor to corporations, including the National Australia Bank, on their collections. He helped found the Australian Commercial Galleries Association in 1976, serving as its first chairman. With his deputy chairman, the Sydney art dealer Frank Watters, he oversaw the adoption of a code of ethics for member galleries, and steered the development of artist-gallery contracts. He also lobbied Federal arts ministers and the Australia Council for the Arts on matters of concern to the industry.

Early in 1970 Georges and Mirka separated and they were later divorced. He married the contemporary painter Caroline Marsh Williams in 1985. Tolarno Galleries was prominent in the 1980s. Besides representing leading figures such as John Brack and Albert Tucker, he mounted controversial shows by the young artists Howard Arkley and Juan Davila. In 1988 he achieved his ambition to establish a commercial art fair in Australia. He served on the organising committee of the Australian Contemporary Art Fair, and Tolarno took a large stand. That year he was appointed chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

Still running Tolarno Galleries, Mora was planning a third art fair when he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Survived by his wife and their son, and the three sons from his first marriage, he died on 7 June 1992 at South Caulfield and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery. That year a biennial lecture was established in his name and in 2006 the Georges Mora Foundation was formed to provide artist fellowships. Portraits of him were painted by Charles Blackman (1956), and by his wife (1988).

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Heathcote, Christopher. A Quiet Revolution: The Rise of Australian Art, 1946–1968. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1995
  • Heathcote, Christopher. Inside the Art Market: Australia’s Galleries: A History 19561976. Port Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2016
  • Mora, Georges. Interview by the author, 20 May 1988
  • Mora, Mirka. Wicked but Virtuous: My Life. Ringwood: Penguin Books, 2000
  • Mora, William. Interview by the author, 14 May 2008
  • National Archives of Australia. B78, 1956/MORA G
  • National Archives of Australia. MT848/1, V1955/35021

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Christopher Heathcote, 'Mora, Georges (1913–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mora-georges-23840/text32714, published online 2017, accessed online 18 December 2018.

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