John Coburn's magnificent tapestry was originally designed to adorn the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.
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opened to the public on 20 October 1973, about eight years had passed since the original architect, Jørn Utzon had withdrawn from the project, following a serious disagreement with the Minister for Public Works, Davis Hughes.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."
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).
“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.
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.
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.