By Melissa Mitchell One of the longest-standing jokes about modern art is that much of it resembles the simplistic finger-paintings and crayon drawings of pre-schoolers. That some of the great masters - from Henri Matisse to Pablo Picasso - were influenced in some way by children's art is evident to the trained as well as the untrained observer, although art professionals generally have denied or downplayed it. Thus, the connection rarely has been mentioned in the scholarship on modern art or even acknowledged by most of the artists themselves, according to UI art historian Jonathan Fineberg. Until now, that is. "Although children's art was not the only source for modern artists, that it was a source is now undeniable," Fineberg wrote in an article in the April issue of ARTnews magazine. The art history professor will illustrate his point and provide "a deeper understanding of modern artists' creative processes and ambitions" in "The Innocent Eye: Children's Art and the Modern Artist," an exhibition of major masterpieces and source material that opened May 30 at the Lehnbachhaus in Munich, Germany. The exhibition, which travels to the Kunstmuseum in Bern, Switzerland, in August, includes a catalog to be published by Yale University Press in 1996 in which Fineberg chronicles the influences of child art on Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Matisse, Joan Miro, Gabriele Mčnter, Picasso and others. Fineberg has spent the past decade researching and documenting the relationship between the work of modern artists and children's art in their possession. Typically, the youthful "masterpieces" were created by their children, friends' children, nieces and nephews. Occasionally, artists even exhibited these works along with their own work in the early part of the 20th century. While various artists drew different meanings and inspirations from their young muses, Fineberg believes many in "the vanguard of the new century sought in children's art a means of peeling back the layers of an overcultivated, fin-de-siecle Europe to discover what lay buried beneath that elaborately rendered facade." Fineberg's initial investigation of a link between child art and the work of modern masters focused on the pre-World War I work of Kandinsky, the subject of his dissertation. "Looking at Kandinsky's first abstractions of 1909 to 1914 with this question in mind, I recognized a range of references to child styles of rendering that made me certain the artist must have studied children's art in detail. Once I realized that Kandinsky must have had an extensive collection of child art, it wasn't hard to figure out where it would be if it still existed: I went straight to the material taken from the Murnau house Kandinsky had shared with Gabriele Munter before World War I," Fineberg said. Indeed, an extensive collection of children's art was there among Munter's papers. "This remarkable discovery set me on a systematic course of investigation that led, over the next 10 or so years, to the astonishing discovery of the original collections of children's works that belonged to one master after another," Fineberg said.