Side trip from the cutting edge

What an about-face is this ''Pipes of Pan,'' painted in 1923 by Pablo Picasso! But how could this giant of Modernism, this anarchist against the representational image, resort back to the Neoclassical art form? As early as 1907, Picasso had hurled his Cubist bomb into the painted picture, fracturing things and figures almost beyond recognition - almost, that is, until the perceptions adjusted to what Picasso forced them to see. But the damage had been done. Nothing in the art world would be the same again, for with Picasso's discovery of Cubism, the revolution of Modern art was under way.

And yet why, having discovered Cubism, did this hero of Modern art turn back to Pompeian frescoes, Roman sculpture, Renoir, Ingres and Poussin as sources of inspiration? It just doesn't fit.

And it didn't. His Neoclassical phase lasted from around 1917 until about 1925. Then very strange forms began to appear on his canvases - forms more closely related to bony dinosaurs or huge stick insects than the humans they were meant to depict. From there the focus of his art became the look of feelings and sensation, rather than the human form itself. So why this backwater of Neoclassicism?

In 1917, while working in Rome for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, Picasso had met Olga Khokhlova, a member of the corps de ballet. The ballet itself had brought fresh vision and a renewed awareness of the human form. So had the sculpture of ancient Rome. But it was Olga who had affected the real changes. She was a beautiful, ambitious daughter of a Russian general - and, it seems, a stickler for the proprieties. In 1918, Picasso married Olga and with this marriage, his Bohemia was all but blighted; his life style remained avant-garde only to the extent that it was fashionable and fitted into the play world of the beautiful rich. Joining the jet set before the jet actually took flight, he and Olga summered in the chic sunspots along the Riviera and partied in Paris, where they lived in a fashionable apartment. It was arranged on two floors so that Olga could receive guests in their meticulous drawing room all in white, while Picasso worked on the floor above, his last holdout of Bohemian disarray. But of course this sort of life didn't suit Picasso. You just can't keep a giant in a bottle.

By 1924, inevitable cracks in the marriage became irreparable. All portraits of Olga ceased. By 1925, his Neoclassical era had ended. By 1927, Picasso had met the earthy Marie-Therese, and new portraits in an entirely different style began to emerge.

That these facts about Picasso's private life are relevant might seem questionable, even prying. But we know more about Picasso's personal background than we do about most artists because Picasso tells us about himself - constantly. His experiences and his feelings were the subject of his art. He not only tells us with his work, but, in case we've missed the point, he tells us in his own words: ''Actually, everything depends on oneself. . . . The oeuvre one creates is a form of diary.'' And in another statement Picasso stresses, ''It's not what the artist does that counts, but what he is. Cezanne would never have interested me a bit if he had lived and thought like Jacques-Emile Blanche, even if the apple he painted had been ten times as beautiful. What forces our interest is Cezanne's anxiety - that's Cezanne's lesson; the torment of Van Gogh - that is the actual drama of the man. The rest is a sham.''

So what is interesting about the ''Pipes of Pan?'' It's a cool, calm throwback to the phase in Picasso's art when people not only looked like people, they were statuesque gods, ideal beings with ideal proportions, weighty, inspiring and immortal. A monument to manhood, an homage to the serene elegance of the past.

Olga the ballerina was herself an embodiment of the elegant, classical tradition, and a strong-minded conformist besides.

The fact that this painting has a striking appeal is somewhat beside the point (although that could hardly be ignored). Its essence is Elysian, its atmosphere sun-drenched. The sky and the sea are of strong, unrelenting Mediterranean blues; the skin has turned to terra cotta, and the walls are typically stone-colored clay. But somehow it's more a symbol of the seaside than an actual evocation. In fact, I'm not quite sure the seaside was even real to Picasso. People stripping themselves and frolicking about tended to remind him of the old myths, as the painting's title suggests. Indeed, it almost seems as if the figure playing the pipes is there as a lure to the serious figure on the left, presenting us with Picasso's own conflict of intentions. This is not meant to delve into the subterranean world of Picasso's mind; this is simply an attempt to decipher the hieroglyphs he has left us with.

Yet Picasso was as contradictory with his ideas as he was with his painting. He might well have said to us, it doesn't really matter about me, look at my picture - how I can draw and what an innovator I am. Respond to that, and I've done my job.

But it still would not explain his reversion to a way of painting (although different in style) that he had deliberately smashed 16 years before. Unless, that is, one links it to a period in his life which was completely out of step with all his other movements. Marrying Olga was like returning to the conventional demands, restrictions and expectations of his father, a museum curator and an authoritatively traditional art teacher - the parent whom he had painfully broken with in his youth.

It wasn't that Picasso could never go home again. It was that he should not and in effect could not go back to ways he had outgrown. So in the end, the giant was forced to break out of his bottle and then finally throw the bottle away. And that was also (not surprisingly) to mean the end of Picasso's Neoclassical cul-de-sac.

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