`WE must become children again if we wish to achieve the best'' - the dictum of the early 19th-century German artist Philipp Otto Runge defined his attitude to art as squarely part of the Romantic movement. His paintings, and his drawings in preparation for paintings, no less than his words, show that children - particularly the rather numerous rounded putti in his more obviously symbolic and mystical works - represented for him a primal state of innocence. They were emblems of renewal, of a fresh start, which he vividly felt was needed in both religion and art. In this attitude he had more than a touch in common with the significance childhood had for Wordsworth when he wrote: ``Heaven lies about us in our infancy.''
Runge pursued the visionary notion that there is interaction between human feeling and natural phenomena. His most ambitious project - which he didn't finish - was to be a series of decorative murals called ``Times of Day.'' In the meticulous pen drawings and oil sketches he made for this scheme, large flowers are accompanied by small angelic children, almost as if the children have leaped out of the flowers: This is hieroglyphic imagery and difficult to interpret, but the basic emphasis on native innocence is clear. William Vaughan, in his book ``German Romantic Painting'' writes that Runge ``followed the 17th-century mystic Jacob B"ohme in using flowers to symbolize different states of awareness. `We see in every flower the living spirit which man has placed in it,' he wrote; ...''
In his portraits, Runge was more down-to-earth, and more conventional. But when children are part of a composition, as in his portrait of ``The Artist's Parents'' - which also includes his small son and nephew - or in the painting shown here of ``The Huelsenbeck Children,'' something of the intensity of his view of childhood is still intrinsically present.
``The Huelsenbeck Children'' cannot simply be seen as a portrait of the offspring of Runge's brother's business partner. The artist has found in the subject a reason for imaginatively reen-tering the world of childhood - a world in which adults are noticeably absent and children freely determine their own activities and hierarchy. He brings the onlooker down to the children's level. The burgeoning growth of the giant sunflower on the left is not only a symbol of their unchecked development, their natural capacity for growing, but also indicates the scale of the protagonists; it shows how small they are.
But at the same time Runge has made the garden fence much smaller than it must actually have been and by doing so has paradoxically made the children seem comparatively large. One feels he was viewing the proceedings through the brightly staring, knowing eyes of the infant in the cart.
The incisive way in which the picture was painted, including the distant landscape, which is recognizably the place outside Hamburg where the Huelsen-beck family lived, makes for a literalism, a kind of sparkling reality, that exemplifies Runge's belief in the freshness of the child's view of life and grasps something of the unquestioning eagerness with which children take in their surroundings.
This in turn invests his painting with a naivet'e or a primitivism that in terms of art history seems about a century ahead of its time. Not until ``Le Douanier'' Rousseau painted his apparently childlike pictures at the start of the 20th century is there anything that has a similarly unsophisticated, though scrupulously delineated, directness.
Yet this apparent lack of sophistication in Runge's painting is perhaps misleading. As with William Blake in his ``Songs of Innocence,'' Runge's identification with the primal world of childhood was conscious and deliberate. At root it probably stemmed, as did Blake's, from the ideas and writings of the French-Swiss 18th-century moralist Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau not only proposed that ``savages'' were ``noble,'' but that children, too, had innate ``genius'' and ``character.''
Rousseau wrote that ``infancy has a manner of perceiving, thinking and feeling peculiar to itself.'' The wrong kind of education only perverted the natural inclinations of children. Right education was a matter of modeling and bringing to perfection a child's ``peculiar temperament.'' Virtue in the adult comes from natural childhood propensities ``well directed.'' In other words, the innate qualities of children are to be valued, not quashed.
The sturdy ``Huelsenbeck Children,'' as Runge valued them in paint, certainly display individuality and independence. The baby, clutching a leaf of the sunflower, seems to be instinctively resisting the headlong pull of his older brother, robustly cracking his toy whip. The oldest child, on the other hand, turns back, concerned about the baby's leaf-grab.
The pictorial theme of a child being pulled in a cart by older children was not invented by Runge. It derives from some 18th-century British family portraits: There is an example by Stubbs called ``Josiah Wedgwood and His Family'' and one by the Scottish portrait and genre painter David Allan called ``Sir James Hunter Blair, Bt., and his family.'' The children in this second painting actually cavort with exuberance and abandon - a kind of frieze of small, lively figures across the picture space, bursting with high spirits and unchecked delight, while their statuesque, aristocratic parents take their afternoon walk on the estate in the midst of all this joyful, childish mayhem.
The robust - and middle-class - Huelsenbeck brood are, by comparison, very ``well directed.'' They are certainly full of vitality, but by no means wild. Their vigor is innate rather than extrovert. Their restraints are instinctive. Perhaps they are the kind of children the artist wanted to ``become again.''