Curtain of the Moon

Sydney Opera House

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

Curtain of the Moon, Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
The symbolic power of nature
John Coburn's tapestry the Curtain of the Moon was designed as the house curtain the Drama Theatre at the opening of Sydney Opera House. The Curtain of the Moon weighs nearly 60 kilograms and is 5 metres in height and 17 metres wide.
Detail of the Curtain of the Moon, Design for Tapestry Curtain, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, John Coburn, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

"All my work is deliberately abstract so that people can read into it whatever they like. I like it to be that way, I find that if I paint naturalistically then it loses its symbolic power. It might be what the eye actually sees in nature, but is only what you see, it is no longer symbolic. To retain this symbolic power my work tends to be semi-abstract."

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

Detail of the Curtain of the Moon, Design for Tapestry Curtain, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, John Coburn, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

“Some of the shapes in the tapestry could appear to be like birds, but they are ambiguous, deliberately, because I like all my shapes to be ambiguous so that people can read other things in to it. There is often symbolism behind what is visually depicted. I don’t mind what interpretation people place on it even if they misconstrue my original intentions. In fact, I quite like that: I think that’s all part of my work. If the shapes were too explicit they wouldn’t have the same impact, they wouldn’t have the same power. I think some part of my message should get across to anyone who is visually aware.”

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

Loomis Dean, 1958, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection

“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..."

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

Loomis Dean, 1958, From the collection of: LIFE Photo Collection

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

Curtain of the Moon, Design for Tapestry Curtain, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, John Coburn, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

This maquette was painted by Coburn as the design for the tapestry. From this, using the photographic process, it was enlarged and printed into a full size guide, called a cartoon, which was placed under the loom and used by the weavers as a guide to accurately create the tapestry.

Mr Foster, Mr-Pinton and Mr Lepetit with the maquette for the Curtain of the Moon, Coburn Family Archives, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
Weaving the Curtain of the Sun, Coburn Family Archives, 1970, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

A weaver in the French town of Felletin prepares to begin weaving a portion of the tapestry.

Detail of the Curtain of the Moon, Sydney Opera House, 2017, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
Detail of the Curtain of the Moon, Sydney Opera House, 2017, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
Curtain of the Moon, Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

“Unfazed by the tedious and hideously expensive process of tapestry weaving, the personally modest Coburn conceives his groupings as grandly as Picasso, whom he acknowledges as one of his major influences, along with other moderns such as Braque, Calder, Matisse and Miro.

"Coburn's images are also evocative of the 'dreamings' of Australia's aborigines, whose art, mysticism and reverence for nature he absorbed while growing up in Queensland.”

From 'The Fabric of Australia' by Hank Burchard, Washington Post, August 23 1991.

Preview hanging of the Curtain of the Moon, Coburn Family Archives, 1972, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

Peter Hall (left) was the design architect leading a consortium of three architects - Hall, Todd and Littlemore - in the completion of Sydney Opera House in the wake of Jørn Utzon's withdrawal from the project.

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.”

When it was suggested to Peter Hall (left) in 1969 that John Coburn (right) be commissioned to design the tapestry curtains, he readily agreed.

Curtain of the Moon, Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

In a report in 1990 on the design approach to the Opera House, with recommendations on its conservation, Hall described the colours of the Curtain of the Moon as “calm and sympathetic with the kind of performances expected in the drama theatre”.

Members of the public view John Coburn's Curtain of the Moon on the occasion of his death, 2006, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

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 were enduring in the bustling live theatre environments environments of the theatres.

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.

Moon and Sydney Opera House, John Coburn, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
Conserving the Curtain of the Moon, Sydney Opera House, 2017, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
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.
Conservation of the Curtain of the Sun and the Curtain of the Moon, Sydney Opera House, 2017, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House

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.

Detail of the Curtain of the Moon being cleaned, Sydney Opera House, 2017, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
Curtain of the Moon, Max Dupain, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, 1973, From the collection of: Sydney Opera House
Curtain of the Moon, 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
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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