Curtain of the Sun

Sydney Opera House

John Coburn's magnificent tapestry was originally designed to adorn the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.

"A work of art in its own right."
The magnificent Curtain of the Sun originally adorned the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House as the house curtain. It is among the largest tapestries in the world, alongside its counterpart, the Curtain of the Moon, which was created at the same time, in 1969, for the Drama Theatre. 

When the Opera House opened to the public on 20 October 1973, about eight years had passed since the original architect, Jørn Utzon had withdrawn from the project, following a serious disagreement with the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes.

One aspect of the building that had been so important to Utzon was the use of colour in the experience of visiting the Opera House. “The idea was to see a spectacular building as you arrive and as you enter the foyers you see additional colours... As you enter the Minor or Major hall this explodes into a very rich expression of colours, which uplift you in that festive mood, away from daily life, that you expect when you go to the theatre, a play, an opera or a concert.”

Whilst Utzon was unable to realise all of his ideas, the spirit of his intentions in the use of colour was captured in John Coburn’s majestic Curtain of the Sun and Curtain of the Moon.

Looking back, in 1990, Australian architect Peter Hall, who was the design architect for the interiors of the building, described the Curtain of the Sun: "A tapestry curtain was commissioned and its own lighting provided for it. This is the Curtain of the Sun, so called by its artist, John Coburn, who saw its strong warm colours as evocative of the atmosphere of opera. Woven at Aubusson, France, the curtain is a work of art in its own right. In practice, like the Curtain of the Moon, it was not always used by producers who often prefer to set their own pre-performance mood."

Both house curtains were commissioned in 1969 after Lucien Dray, the representative of the French tapestry company Pinton Frères of Aubusson, suggested that John Coburn be commissioned to design curtains for the opera and drama theatres.

Coburn was already one of Australia’s best-known modern artists when he was commissioned to design the curtains in 1969.

By then, about four years had passed since the departure of Jørn Utzon, and the Australian architect Peter Hall was immersed in designing the interiors of the building and the enclosing glass walls.

Hall was striving to find a balance between his interpretation of Utzon’s designs, changes in requirements for the building, and his own design aesthetic.

When it was suggested to Hall that Coburn be commissioned to design these house curtains, he readily agreed.

On 26 November 1969 the minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes, gave final approval to proceed with the commission of $78,000 Australian dollars.

“I remember standing right up at the back of the Opera Theatre and looking down on to the stage. I could almost see my curtain there; I knew immediately what I wanted to do... I had decided to base the Opera House curtains on Miro’s Wall of the Sun and his Wall of the moon, which are ceramic walls at UNESCO in Paris. I hadn’t even seen them at this time; I had only seen reproductions of them in books. I would do the ‘Curtain of the sun’ for the Opera Theatre and the ‘Curtain of the moon’ for the Drama Theatre. And I more or less sketched them out roughly that night when I got back to Canberra.”
John Coburn recalling his visit to the building site in 1969. (John Coburn: the Spirit of Colour, Lou Klepac, 2003).

This initial design from late 1969 was refined a few months later in January 1970 so that the object of the sun would not be interrupted by the parting of the curtain.

The finished study (a painting) from 1970, known as a maquette, illustrates how Coburn refined the composition of the design to cater for the ratio of the finished curtain and where it would part. These refinements included re-positioning the sun and adding shapes to the composition.

“I thought at first that both parts of the curtain came in from the side, in from the wings and met in the centre. I thought that the join would be dead centre, but I found out later that it was not a dead centre, it was somewhat to the left so that the two sections of the curtain overlapped and the overlapping part cut through some of the rays of the sun.

"So I reversed the design, so that the sun is now on the right section of the curtain. Subsequently they found that it was not successful for the curtains to come in from the sides; they now have two sections joined together and the curtain comes down from the top.”

John Coburn, from 'John Coburn: The Spirit of Colour' by Lou Klepac, 2003.

Coburn travelled to France to oversee creation of the tapestries by celebrated Pinton Frères weavers of Aubusson and Felletin.

The weavers worked from cartoons, which are photographic enlargements of the original maquette of the design.

The cartoon is created at the full size of the finished tapestry and positioned so that the weavers see it through the cotton warp as they work.

Colour swatches were given with the maquette. The wools were dyed to this and given numbers which are then described on the cartoon.

Weaving had been practiced since the fourteenth century in the region, and after World War II artists such as Le Corbusier, Cocteau, Dali, Calder and Picasso had all had their works realised by the talented generations of craftspeople.

"The murals of our times"
The Opera House is also home to tapestries by artists including Le Corbusier, Jørn Utzon and John Coburn. Le Corbusier considered the medium of tapestry as both artwork and a significant aspect of interior design. His advocacy of the weaver’s craft contributed to the revitalizing of the Aubusson weaving industry during the post-war period.

In late October 1958 Jørn Utzon wrote to Le Corbusier to ask if the renowned architect might create art works for the interiors of the Opera House. In the process Utzon commissioned a tapestry that for many years hung in his home in Hellebaek, Denmark.

The tapestry now hangs in the Opera House.

The tapestry that hangs in the Utzon Room was designed by the original architect of the Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon, after his re-engagement with the Opera House in the early 2000s. The Utzon Room is the first interior designed by Utzon and highlights his use of colour in performance spaces.

An artistic triumph
In 1971, the finished tapestries were shipped to Hamburg to be made into functioning house curtains, and they arrived in Australia in 1972 where they were hung temporarily in the Opera House Recording Studio. In a media statement, Davis Hughes, Minister for Public Works heralded them an “artistic triumph”.

At the opening of Sydney Opera House, their sheer size, vibrant colours and striking abstract imagery were an undeniable focus of attention.

But shortly after the opening, the Curtain of the Moon had been moved into storage and it was not long before the Curtain of the Sun followed. This was in part a response to the artistic requirements of performances, and due to the damage caused to the tapestries in the live theatre environments.

In 2003, three years before his death, Coburn spoke to the Sydney Morning Herald about the disappointment he felt that his tapestries had been rarely used for their original purpose:

"I was commissioned to design something bright to offset the Opera House interiors. The problem was that the opera designers feared they would overshadow their own designs. And the fashion in theatre is not to have a curtain on the set." John Coburn, October 20, 2003.

A poster announcing the opening of Sydney Opera House and featuring detail from John Coburn's Curtain of the Sun and a graphical representation of the profile of Sydney Opera House.

The poster is significant in the history of Australian graphic design for presenting one of the earliest examples of the Sydney Opera House profile which would emerge as a universally recognisable icon of Australia.

Source: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. Purchased 2000. Jean-Francois Lanzarone.

Concern for their conservation has kept them out of the public eye, except for rare occasions such as in 2006 to mark John Coburn’s death.

Conservation and heritage
The tapestries are comprised of a lattice of both warp and weft threads. The warp is made of cotton and runs vertically remaining invisible behind the horizontal weft, which is wool and holds the pattern and colour. Prior to being woven, the warp for both tapestries was sent to Germany to be fire proofed. Once the tapestries arrived back in Sydney they were again treated with a fire retardant. A 1990s conservation assessment identified that the fire retardants had caused deterioration of the tapestries and there was significant weakening of the threads. Other damage was also observed at this time, including a tear and burn marks from being in a live theatre environment. In the 1990s the Victorian Tapestry Workshop undertook extensive restoration works on both tapestries

A further condition assessment and cleaning were undertaken in 2017 by International Conservation Services, which found that the prior conservation work had left the tapestries in excellent condition, nearly half a century after their creation.

Curtain of the Sun, John Coburn
Credits: Story

Curated by Sam Doust and the Sydney Opera House Coburn Tapestries Exhibition team. Research undertaken by Dr Anne Watson on behalf of the Sydney Opera House.

With thanks and acknowledgements to the Coburn Family Archives, the Sydney Opera House collection, Mitchell Library State Library of New South Wales, and the Hall Family Archives.

The Australian Government has kindly provided funding support for the exhibition through its Protecting National Historic Sites Program.

Credits: All media
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