VISITING an exhibition of children's drawings, Picasso (according to Roland Penrose) said: ``When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.'' The earliest drawing I've seen by Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) is in Barcelona: six studies of doves and, below them on the sheet, a bullfight. It was done when he was nine. It is lively, proficient, and precocious - but not at all like Raphael (Italian, 1483-1520). Also to some degree it casts doubt on another, similar, Picasso claim: ``I never did children's drawings. Never.'' This 9-year-old's effort is a child's drawing - though certainly a clever one.
When Picasso went to art school he seemed to have had little difficulty in fulfilling the demand to produce accurate if uninspired plaster-cast studies of classical sculptures. This was the regular stuff of art training. Presumably it was this kind of thing that Picasso referred to in his epigram when he said he ``could draw like Raphael.''
For centuries, Raphael had been considered the exemplar for the academic teaching and learning of art. Sir Joshua Reynolds, the founding father of academic art teaching in Britain in the 18th century, had touched, in one of his discourses, on the reason for Raphael's dominance as the exemplary old master: ``... it is,'' he pronounced, ``from his having taken so many models, that he became himself a model for all succeeding painters; always imitating, and always original.''
The models Raphael took included classical Greek and Roman sculpture, as well as the work of his almost-contemporaries, Leonardo and Michelangelo. He was a passionate learner, absorbing whatever would advance his own art and feed his imagination.
The word ``passionate'' might be emphasized, because when Raphael ``drew like Raphael,'' it was with intensity and fresh vigor. His drawings achieve, as his career develops, a fullness and balance, a sensitivity and capacity, that never stopped breaking new ground. It is as if he breathed on the antique, which he so intently admired, and it came alive again.
The academic art teaching based on Raphael's originality, however, tended to be imitative rather than inspired, pedestrian and measured rather than intuitive and exploratory. Copying dead art makes for dead art.
Picasso's juvenile drawings, copies after the antique, `a la Raphael, instill the antique with no vitality at all. His vitality surfaces, instead, as a deliberate escape from the rules and measurements of art training.
By the end of the 19th century, such training had been under fire at least for several decades in France. In Spain there must have been less questioning of it. But as soon as Picasso started to breathe air nearer to France, by living in Barcelona, and looked to artists like Toulouse-Lautrec as models, he belatedly joined the anti-academic rebels.
He rebelled against the academic for the rest of his long career. He rebelled, above all, against ``copying.'' He was always opposed to repeating - either himself, the art of contemporaries, or past art.
He told a friend once: ``A large number of young painters show me their pictures. Why do they want to retrace my path? Why do they adopt the old formulas of Cubism, Fauvism, and Impressionism? Almost all of them seem to me to be destined to become painters of charm.'' It seemed to him that they ``pose themselves problems'' instead of simply getting on with the job of painting. This theorizing made them ``stop en route.'' His advice was ``never to stop en route!
``A growing tree does not pose itself problems of tree-culture. A young artist must forget painting when he paints. That's the only way he will do original work. To blossom forth, a work of art must ignore, or rather forget, all the rules.''
Originality mattered crucially to Picasso, and one of the many twists and turns, one of the paradoxes his multifaceted art explored, was child art. The child is father to the man. But in his case he was long the man before he rediscovered the child. In the 1950s he made paintings, drawings, and lithographs that have the impatient directness, the unconsidered insouciance, of child art. He assumed himself a kid let loose with a box of paints or crayons. ``Assumed'' is right, because, as he said, he had to learn to draw like a child. Why would he want to?
A child's art is untutored. It cares little for explanation, for accumulated skills, for style, for resolution of a problem. It never theorizes, knows nothing of aesthetics or art history. It doesn't need to be justified to anyone else. And it is a private activity.
Picasso - autobiographer par excellence - was, for all the publicity and publicity-seeking, in essence a private artist. And if he wanted to escape from the stilting net of the expected, what could be better - in one's 70s - than playing the child?
IN fact he was in line with much else that had happened in 20th century art. Naive and primitive art had appealed as inspiration to numerous artists, rather than the Raphaelite, classical Western tradition.
Sculptors like Henry Moore had looked to pre-Columbian sculpture rather than to Bernini.
The painter Paul Klee had found a way through to a telling visual language which has much of the child about it. Matisse, as his art teacher had told him he would, had ``simplified'' painting.
It's as if in the search for true originality, such artists had looked to the archetypal, the primeval in mankind's history, as model: to mankind's childhood. It proved to be a rich source.
Picasso's assumption of child art takes on extraordinary potency when he applies it, like a mischievous onslaught, to the works of old masters.
In the 1950s he launched into Vel'azquez, re-creating ``Las Meninas'' in child language. He did so with all the bumptious delight of a bull in a china shop, iconoclastic and puerile.
His admiration for ``Las Meninas'' is, in reality, never far from the surface. But it is the absolute opposite of an academic admiration. It is as if he felt that the only way to pay homage to this great painting of the 17th century was to deliberately make a disrespectful face at it.
To copy it would have been the worst of insults. To pull it apart and reconstitute it in terms of the excited chaotics of child art was an act, rather literally, of rejuvenation. And rejuvenation, if Picasso's career has one vital message, is what art is all about.