One-trick ponies and the perilous path to artistic success
Paul Simon tells us he has always laboured agonisingly over his work with the result that his best music has an air of timelessness about it, though sometimes he feels let down by his inability to sustain his enthusiasm, giving over to a temptation to experiment with something altogether new.
Writing in Rolling Stone on the release of Simon’s 1980 film One Trick Pony and accompanying soundtrack album, an exasperated Stephen Holden observed, “Simon is always equivocating, substituting pathos for anger, whimsy for humor, tenderness for passion, analysis for revelation. He’s too polite - or maybe too scared - to admit demons or angels into his art”. [i]
Ironically, One Trick Pony is acclaimed as one of Simon’s most enduring and heartfelt albums. In its title track Simon looks back in sadness and wonders what it all was worth. Simply by raising the question of whether the rock & roll life has passed him by, Simon admits that he is already on the outside looking in.
He's a one-trick pony One trick is all that horse can do He does, one trick only It's the principal source of his revenue
He's a one-trick pony He either fails or he succeeds He gives his testimony Then he relaxes in the weeds He's got one trick to last a lifetime But that's all a pony needs Yeah, that's all he needs
Reflecting on these tuneful lyrics, now running through my head on a continuous loop, I was taken back.
A close friend but now living in London, introduced me to this album when at school in Melbourne. It was 1980, the year John Lennon died, and the poignancy of the music playing through our headphones filled most of our conversations, igniting our curiosity and early artistic expression, acted out in our own raw, adolescent ways.
Paul Simon's 1980 album, 'One Trick Pony' Photo: Paul Simon
Years later I still struggle with these same anxieties in my own art practice. And whether one tackles these existential questions head on and in a more nostalgic way, the fundamental challenge for me remains. Should I continue with the one signature art form, the one trick that has to some extent brought me success, or risk all and bravely experiment on other things?
In the fine art realm, artists from Sidney Nolan to Pablo Picasso to Edvard Munch have all struggled against doing the same thing over and over, insightfully voicing their displeasures while searching for a new direction or purpose to propel them to the fore.
Australian artist Sidney Nolan’s creativity was fuelled by a constant fascination with the elusive notion of paradise and the consequences of loss.[ii] But while at Heide (1941-47), bored with the repetitive themes of his childhood in St Kilda and one-dimensional depictions of the Australian landscape, Nolan hit upon the now iconic modernist image of the bushranger Ned Kelly, towering over the dry outback landscape, much to the annoyance of Albert Tucker, his close friend at Heide in the Post-war years, who it is claimed originally came up with the idea only for it to be usurped by a stampeding Nolan.
Sidney Nolan, 'Ned Kelly' (1946) Photo: National Gallery of Australia
In 1907, one of Nolan’s Cubist influences Pablo Picasso was 26 and had been living in Paris for three years, attracting attention with his blue monochrome paintings, closely followed by the work of his "rose period". Intense and ambitious, he searched for a new source of inspiration, something that would shake the art world and vault him to the front of the avant-garde. He found it in African art.
Picasso was visiting Gertrude Stein at her Paris apartment in the spring of 1907 when Henri Matisse stopped by with an African sculpture he had just purchased. According to Matisse, the two artists were enthralled by its depiction of a human figure. Soon afterwards, Picasso went to the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology (now the Musée de l'Homme) with another artist, André Derain. That visit, Picasso later claimed, was pivotal to his art.
"A smell of mould and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately," Picasso said of the museum. "But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path."[iii]
Pablo Picasso, “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon” (1907) Right: African Fang mask Photo: Mark Howell
Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso Photo: ABC
Although Picasso and Edvard Munch never met, the Norwegian artist too was something of a non-conformist. He was known to paint near-naked on the beach, or outside in the snow in the middle of winter. More significantly, he spurned artistic trends. When a style became too popular (or he became too comfortable with it), he would reinvent his approach. “All programmes are destined to be abandoned,” he once wrote in his diary. “Just like all associations and alliances, they hang about one’s feet like heavy chains.”
Over the course of his life, from 1863 until 1944, Munch moved boldly from naturalism to Impressionism, and from Symbolism to his own unique brand of Expressionism. In the process, he abandoned depictions of the exterior world in favour of paintings that harnessed fiercely emotional forces like anxiety, melancholy, and love.
These movements are visible in his increasingly psychological paintings - most famously The Scream, first painted in 1893 - but also in his diaries, which he kept for the majority of his career as a painter.
Munch’s journals were an uninhibited “laboratory in which he recorded scenes, visions, stories, and meditations,” writes historian J. Gill Holland, "revealing a painter on the prowl for the unmediated transmission of mind to page”.
Edvard Munch Photo: Getty Images
Munch’s diaries had much to say on unlocking creativity.
“Don’t be afraid to bare your soul” (Edvard Munch)
In 1907, Munch wrote that art “can come only from the interior of man”. Indeed, the painter drew inspiration for his strongest works from a deep pool of personal memories and emotions.
His early years were plagued with illness and tragedy, including the deaths of his mother and sister from tuberculosis. These misfortunes fueled Munch’s life-long struggles with mental illness and alcoholism, as well as some of his most influential paintings. “Without fear and illness, my life would have been a boat without a rudder,” he later said.
Edvard Munch, 'Death Struggle' (1915) Photo: Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
By his twenties, Munch began channelling the pain of past events directly into his art. In the paintings that resulted, he conveyed his psychological state in both subject matter and style. The Sick Child (1885-86), for example, depicts a small, ailing girl, not unlike his late sister. The content itself is melancholy, but it is Munch’s rough, mottled brushwork and angry scoring that magnify the sense of emotional strife. The whole scene looks unfinished and hazy, as if viewed through tears.
Despite harsh criticism from the Oslo art establishment Munch was not discouraged. He knew exactly what he was doing. “In these images the painter gives what is most valuable to him - he gives his soul - his sorrow - his joy - he gives his own heart’s blood,” he later wrote.
“He presents the human being - not the object,” he continued. “These images will - must - move the spectator all the more powerfully - first a few - then many more, then everyone.”[iv]
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child (1885-86) Photo: Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo
“I do not paint what I see but what I saw.” (Edvard Munch)
By the late 1880s, Munch’s paintings became increasingly impressionistic as he continued exploring his psychological state on canvas. He wanted to convey feeling even more lucidly.
In the throes of depression induced by his father’s death in 1889, Munch wrote what has become known as his “Saint Cloud Manifesto.” In it he forcefully rejected realism. “The subjects of painting will no longer be interiors, with people reading and women knitting,” he wrote. “They will be living, breathing people who feel and love and suffer.”
The canvases that followed, like 'The Scream' (1893) and 'Anxiety' (1894), are both his most famous and most psychologically raw - Munch created five versions of 'The Scream', between 1893 and 1910, including two paintings, two pastel drawings, and a lithograph. They also laid the groundwork for Symbolism. Here, Munch's figures represented intense human emotions with swirls of vivid colours and mask-like faces, rather than their daily lives.
Edvard Munch, 'The Scream' (1893) Photo: Tate Modern
Around the same time, Munch summed up his changing approach with a now-famous aphorism: “I do not paint what I see but what I saw.” With this statement, he gave himself - and other painters after him - permission to compose from memory and feeling, and to interpret reality through a personal lens.
“Colour should be applied emotionally, not realistically” (Edvard Munch)
Munch’s approach to colour was unusual. He could be known to paint a face green to hint at fear, or to render a sky in blood red to convey unease. These surrealistic choices helped the painter express atmosphere, emotion, and immediacy.
In a journal from 1891, he meditated on the power of colour to transform perception or experience. “Go into a billiard hall,” he instructed. “After you have stared for some time at the intense green cloth, look up. How strangely red is everything around you.”
He goes on to explain that the only way to communicate the full experience - visual, mental, and physical - of being surrounded in such an environment is to depict the room as red, instead of its true black. “If one is going to paint the immediate impression of a moment, the atmosphere, that which is human - then this is what one must do,” he continued.
Edvard Munch, 'Night in Saint-Cloud' (1890) Photo: Tate Modern
Munch regarded colour as yet another material that he could manipulate as he wished, inverting it and intensifying it to drive home the effects of certain environments or experiences on the human mind.
“Don’t strive for perfection - it will only hinder your work” (Edvard Munch)
Munch believed in the power of messiness. To him, haphazard brushstrokes, distorted bodies, and unlovely colours conveyed authenticity - what he strived for when he painted. He often scratched his canvases with sharp tools and painted many of his works outside, battered by the elements.
Munch celebrated imperfections, and believed that trying to adhere to standards or styles sucked the life and energy from art. “One good picture with ten holes in it is better than ten bad pictures with no holes,” he wrote in his diary.
“Many painters work so attentively and carefully with the grounding and the completion of a painting - in order that it last an eternity - and they lose their fire,” he continued. “Then it turns out that the picture has become so boring and bad that it disappears into the junk room.”
As a painter, Munch’s goal was never immortality, nor for his paintings to live forever. Instead, he hoped what he had expressed - a new, emotionally driven approach to painting - would have a lasting impact.
Edvard Munch, 'The Kiss' (1897) Photo: Tate Modern
Edvard Munch, 'Spring Ploughing' (1915) Photo: Wikimedia
“Leonardo da Vinci’s best pictures are destroyed. But they do not die. An ingenious thought lives forever,” Munch noted. “Even if a bright expressionist picture loses its colour with time, nevertheless it retains its soul and at least dies beautifully.”[v]
Being on the outside can in the long run bring its own rewards. So, it is not surprising to hear Simon’s response when it was suggested that One-Trick Pony would provide a firm foundation for his future movies. “That’s true, I guess. But I’m not all that sure I wanna do another movie.” Like those same-minded artists that came before, Simon no doubt would find his own path.
Sir Sidney Nolan Photo: Charlestons
[i] Stephen Holden, ‘One Trick Pony’, Rolling Stone, 16 October 1980 [ii] ‘Sidney Nolan: Search for Paradise’, Heide Museum of Modern Art, 2002 [iii] Andrew Meldrum, ‘Stealing Beauty’, The Guardian, 15 March 2006 [iv] Holland, J Gill (ed), ‘The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth’, 2005
Main photo: Paul Simon Photo: Simon & Schuster