The Mindboggling Artistry Of The Opera House's Nearly-Forgotten Tapestries

The Sydney Opera House has a laboured history. It was one of the most controversial architectural projects of the 20th century, and involved years of budget blowouts, resignations and public outcry. By the time of its opening in 1973, it had taken nearly 15 years to complete!

Four magnificent tapestries were commissioned for the Opera House’s interiors to match the scale and grandeur of its iconic architecture. While the most prominent are the two by Australian abstract painter John Coburn, which represent the sun and moon, a third was designed by modern architecture pioneer, Le Corbusier. The final piece was designed by the Opera House’s own architect, Jørn Utzon.

A new podcast hosted by Australian design connoisseur (and downright legend!) Tim Ross gets to the bottom of the history behind these iconic tapestries, and the ways they represent the building’s enduring design legacy. Not to mention – they are INCREDIBLE! We chatted to Tim about these astounding pieces of artistry, with the premiere of House Stories: The Tapestries.

Sasha Gattermayr

Tim Ross, mid-century design enthusiast and host of House Stories: The Tapestries.. Photo – Daniel Boud.

Left: Curtain of the Sun by John Coburn hanging in the Opera House. Photo – Jacquie Manning.

Curtain of the Moon by John Coburn in the Opera House’s Drama Theatre. Photo – Jacquie Manning.

Left: Photo – Jacquie Manning. Right: Tim inspecting Le Corbusier’s tapestry, Les Dés sont Jetés. Photo – Daniel Boud.

The spectacular Curtain of the Moon by John Coburn in full flight on the Opera House stage. Photo – Jacquie Manning.

Left: Archival shot of fabricating the tapestries. Right: In the midst of conserving one of the Coburn tapestries. Photo – Jacquie Manning.

The Coburn family and Opera House CEO, Louise Herron in front of John Coburn’s Curtain of the Sun. Left to right: Daniel Coburn, Sydney Opera House CEO Louise Herron AM, Kristin Coburn, and Stephen Coburn. Photo – Jacquie Manning.

Sasha Gattermayr
24th of September 2020

After visiting a pair of tapestries at the Sydney Opera House by Australian abstract artist, John Coburn, last year, mid-century design enthusiast Tim Ross was struck by their magnificence. They were at once soaring and grounded, vast and intimate. They were originally commissioned as curtains, designed to represent the vitality and exuberance of performance within the institution’s interior design. They had been in storage since the ’80s, until just last year, when a mammoth conservation effort was undertaken to restore them.

Inspired by the tapestries’ intricate fabrication and close-to-forgotten existence, Tim embarked on creating a new podcast to explore the history and significance of the textiles, plus two others designed by modern architectural pioneer, Le Corbusier, and the Opera House’s own controversial architect, Jørn Utzon. Through a series of interviews conducted with specialists and personal relatives, House Stories: The Tapestries reveals the swashbuckling tales of excitement and mystery behind each commissioned piece, rivalling the Opera House’s tumultuous history. Why were the epic Coburn’s tapestries decommissioned in the 1980s and held in storage until just last year? How did Le Corbusier’s design end up in Utzon’s home, assumed lost before it was rediscovered at an auction house?

Tim answers these questions and more with the help of his fascinating and knowledgable guests. But before you dive right into it, we had some questions for him!

The four tapestries are a fascinating part of the Opera House’s cultural heritage. Why were they commissioned?

Tim Ross: The first three came out of Utzon’s desire to see explosions of colour within the Opera House and a preview to the performance. They are also evidence of the strong interest in tapestries by the modernist architects at the time. Tapestries were originally designed to warm the stone walls of castles but they found a similar role in the 20th century inside buildings of concrete glass and steel. The architect Le Corbusier – who is responsible for Les Dés sont Jetés tapestry, which now hangs in the Opera House foyer – believed that tapestries were like temporary walls that could be moved from house to house.

The final tapestry was designed by Jørn Utzon when he was asked back into the Opera House fold to contribute to the design principles.

Why are they so important?

TR: Firstly and most simply they are exceptional pieces of art, by two great architects (Utzon and Le Corbusier) and the acclaimed Australian artist John Coburn.

They also have great stories to tell about the Opera House and the struggles that the building went though to be built. They also remind us of the brilliant interplay between architecture and art. Tapestries have a warmth that we can connect to quite quickly and when they are combined with exceptional art, that is only intensified. 

John Coburn and Le Corbusier were commissioned to create these curtain designs – pretty snazzy! What’s the story there? How did that happen, and why them?  

TR: Coburn created a set of curtains for the Opera Theatre and the Drama Theatre, named The Curtain of the Sun and The Curtain of the Moon respectively. Peter Hall – the architect who took over the monumental task of finishing the building after Utzon went home under controversial circumstances – wanted to continue that idea of making an explosion of colour that Utzon had envisioned. He was the owner of a Coburn painting, and was a big fan, so it seemed an obvious choice.

Before that, Utzon had written to Le Corbusier and asked if he would provide an artwork for the yet-to-be built Opera House. Le Corbusier had been impressed by the design and agreed. The tapestry never made it to the Opera House because Utzon came home, so it hung in the family home until the Opera House purchase it back in 2015. Then it hung it in its rightful place.

House Stories: The Tapestries episodes are released on a weekly basis. Episode one ‘Coburn Tapestries: The Sun and The Moon’ is available to download now!

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