MORE THAN ONCE PICASSO rebutted his commentators by insisting, "I don't evolve." This sally against those who wished to entrap him in linear history did not deter a vast proliferation of historicizing literature on him. He had wanted to lift himself out of history, via his circuitous working patterns, into an unchanging realm he quite simply called painting. But history avidly reached out for him almost from his beginnings as a child prodigy. As the Picasso literature expands, the distinctions become finer and finer until it seems that the grand lines become blurred by detail, hiding us the prodigious whole that was Picasso's oeuvre.

It is well, then, to approach the many publications since his death in 1973 through the visual record set forth by the Museum of Modern Art in the monumental catalogue for the current Picasso exhibition. Curator William Rubin has edited this album as a chronological sequence, but has proposed significant comparisons in the layout. With a certain bemused surprise he writes, "Few texts I have written have been given more thought than the layout of this catalog, which, in the issues it raises in certain juxtapositions, at least, aspires to kind of art history without words." In a history unbelabored by words, the "unity and continuity," Rubin feels, are now discernible in Picasso's oeuvre -- thanks to the many works from Picasso's own collection made public since his death -- and do emerge. But so does Picasso's stubborn resistance to such strict chronological analysis. The Rubin exposition offers a rare opportunity to find new links between apparently disparate moments in Picasso's working life. Yet, one can't help believing his old friend, the poet and ethnologist Michel Leiris, who writes in Picasso in Retrospect that he is tempted to see Picasso's periods as "a series of civilizations succeeding one another within him."

Even Pierre Daix in his impressively documented survey of Picasso's Cubist years from 1907 to 1916 -- part of an ongoing catalogue raisonne -- has not been able to demonstrate the steady evolution he so fervently wills to discover in a practically day-by-day account. In effect this massive reckoning of Picasso's Cubist adventure is like a restoration of a mosaic. Daix has gone after, and in many cases located, each lost tessera in the hope of writing a new history of Cubism in which his assumption -- that Picasso was developing a "new language of signs" -- can be proved. Since he sees Picasso as the great divide, the agent that overturned 500 years of painting history, much of his text is devoted to a meticulous accounting for each of thousands of works as though they were progressively, inexorably reaching a stage of finality.

Daix's approach is paradoxically traditional. For instance, in his discussion of the numerous sketches and related paintings for the Demoiselles d'Avigon, he spends much effort tracing Picasso's sources and arguing with, or unctuously agreeing with, fellow scholars. It begins to seem that Picasso systematically responded to a long life of others' visual experiences; that his seeing Ingres' Bain Turc and Matisse's Joie de Viure in 1905, his encounter with pre-Roman Iberian sculpture later that year, his study of Cezanne's Bathers and his rivalry with both Matisse and Derain, were the ingredients rather than the inspiration for the shatteringly original painting. Daix's zealous exegeses and the extensive studies cited by other authors certainly spring from a legitimate desire to explain the shock of the work and to make connections which illuminate an artist's process. It is speculation urged on by awe and perplexity. All the same one can question such painstaking documentary precision when it fails, as it so often does, to touch upon the painting's total affective power.

Daix follows others in marking 1908 as a crucial year in Picasso's "search for a system of construction." Picasso's desire, he writes, was "to achieve respect for real forms as against their ephemeral, subjective, derisory aspects." He and Georges Braque turned against perspective which they disdained as "the science of appearances." By 1909 Picasso and Braque had adopted the all-over rhythms they had observed in Cezanne and by 1910, had "shattered the closed form," as Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler put it. By 1912, when cafe subjects dominated Picasso's compositions, he began to stress objects and words, which Daix sees as the beginning of what he calls "an art of signs." It was the year of the first collage and the first metal construction of a guitar. "Picasso's decisive step was to treat reality henceforth as a collection of discrete items of information which he could rearrange according to self-sufficient formal rhythms."

With the introduction of pasted papers, according to Daix, who at this point falls into the fashionable jargon of the structuralists, the whole significance of easel painting was changed. Picasso himself, Daix claims, became aware of "having forged a new pictoral vocabulary and a different syntax." Here we must recall that Picasso, on the contrary, stated that Cubism was painting like any other school of painting, "the same principles and the same elements are common to all." Daix's desire to establish and analyze a new formal vocabulary in order to deal with the obviously revolutionary character of high-epoch Cubism has, perhaps, led him too far. His exclusive interest in formal relationships results in an account that fails to allow for Picasso's equally strong interest in expressive power.

There is redress, however, in Roland Penrose and John Golding's anthology of specialized studies by eight authors, Picasso in retrospect. Penrose himself offers a rich study, "Beauty and the Monster," which makes salient Picasso's "inner vision." He writes about Picasso's preoccupation with metamorphosis and dislocation and sees the Demoiselles in the light that failed for Daix. He says the painting was "more than a change of style, it was a change in the conception of the emotional effect that a work of art should produce -- a restatement of its ancient right to engender awe and fear as well as delight." Golding in his essay "Picasso and Surrealism" agrees and points to the 1925 Three Dancers in which the vocabulary is that of synthetic cubism but the effect one of "atavistic intensity."

Such atavism is acknowledged by John Berger in his reissued The Success and Failure of Picasso, but is considered a negative attribute of Picasso's characer. Berger's essay, originally published in 1945 when the painter was still alive, charges the old genius with having been seduced by his own legend. Berger's Marxist approach casts Picasso in the rol of the dupe of social process and victim of his own inability to find "reality" in modern life. "To be successful is to be assimilated into society just as being a failure means being rejected. Picasso has been assimilated into European bourgeois society -- and this society is now essentially unreal." Despite many singular insights and provocative statements, Berger himself fails totally to prove his case when he falls back on the patently absurd notion that Picasso's failure resides in his not having had anything to paint about. Crudely stated, Berger uses Marxist criteria to show that Picasso "ran out of subjects" in which to contain his admittedly strong feelings. He ran out of them, according to Berger, because he rejected the reality of modern Europe, seeking to preserve instead his atavistic, "noble savage" image brought with him from a backward Spain.

Not even Guernica can allay Berger's suspicion of mauvaise foi (in Sartre's sense of self-deception) on Picasso's part, although millions have been moved by it. There have been several serious studies of Guernica during the past decades, the most illuminating having been that of Rudolf Arnheim. Now Frank D. Russell in Picasso's Guernica resumes the endless speculation on the iconographic meanings implicit in Picasso's allegory, making passionate statements which, in view of Picasso's disclaimers of specific meanings, must be weighed by each reader according to his predilections. Russell's difference with other Guernica exegetes lies in his emphasis on Old and New Testament sources for the imagery. According to him, the Crucifixion stands behind Picasso's conception in every detail. Russell's quotations from the Bible (chosen often from St. John's gospel, which is probably the least appropriate) place "Guernica" in a category that would probably have startled and perhaps displeased the artist. Russell also makes iconographical sorties into the Iberian Celtic past and ancient Greece with beguiling enthusiasm and often convincing arguments. Interpretations are valuable if they are perceived as interpretation and not documentation. Russell bows to a host of authorities and strives to prove his assertions, rather than to rest assured in his individual response. His book is lively, certainly controversial, and visually coherent, since he has laid it out thoughtfully with all details reproduced whenever they are discussed.