‘I have a feeling,’ Picasso said as he got older, ‘that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco and the rest, as well as all the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me at work.’ He also said that while he had a horror of copying himself he was happy to copy others: ‘Shown a portfolio of old drawings, for instance, I have no qualms about taking anything I want from them.’ The pictures in the exhibition at the National Gallery (until 7 June), Picasso: Challenging the Past, make points about his use of other people’s art, but he did that so regularly that they also give an overview of his whole life’s work.

The dialogue with those imagined onlookers took various forms. There are, early on, pictures that say: ‘I can do one of those too.’ For example, the 1901 portrait of Gustave Coquiot with a frieze of dancers in the background is painted and composed in a manner not too far from that of Toulouse-Lautrec. Then there are pictures that tell things of their own in borrowed, or part-borrowed voices. El Greco was on Picasso’s mind when he was painting the sad Blue Period pictures; Puvis de Chavannes was a source for the solemnity of Combing the Hair (1906). The heavy classical figures of the 1920s can be compared with any number of ancient sources (Pompeian frescoes, say) and his early Cubist nudes take something from those of Cézanne. These borrowings, if his career had stopped there, might be called ‘influences’.

But other relationships are without the implied subservience that goes with that word. There are pictures that take as a template a traditional form – still life, portraiture – and subject them to extreme graphic transformations. The given elements – fruit, a guitar, a face, a skull – are faceted, twisted, hatched or distorted, sometimes almost beyond recognition. Without the title you would be hard pressed to relate any detail of Still Life with Glass and Lemon to an object. Only after you have decided that there is a central stand or table and objects on it can the game of interpretation begin. Old art is a substrate, but in this case the viewer borrows an idea to look with rather than the painter an idea to build on.

There are pictures, like the one of a blonde nude in a red armchair, that extract the psychological essentials of the work of other painters but little of its appearance. In the case of the blonde in her armchair Picasso generalises, enlarges and radically reassembles the essential elements of the female nude, a strand in Western art that had reached a high point of erotic intensity in Ingres’s harem bathers; Picasso pushes it even further by creating an image in which the parts are so lavish, so tumbled together, that the picture is more relevant to memories of what it is to touch a body than of what it is to look at one. Some pictures, like this one, enlarge on, even grossly inflate, the spirit of the art they draw on. Ingres’s erotic dreams emerge supercharged in the Sleeping Nude with Blonde Hair. Picasso’s Flayed Sheep’s Head is no less intensely about dead flesh than is Goya’s Still Life with Sheep’s Head, whereas Chardin’s Kitchen Table with Slab of Mutton – printed in the catalogue on the same spread as the other two – shows meat as food that will be enjoyed, its presence re-created in brush marks of red, pink and pale cream that even a vegetarian might take pleasure in.

Picasso’s journey away from the impasse the pursuit of appearances in painting had reached in the 19th century took him back, past medieval Catalan painting, Oceanic masks and African sculpture, towards other kinds of image – drawings by children and the insane, for example – that are not so much approximations of the outward appearance of things as likenesses of what is felt, known, loved, feared or imagined about them. In making these excursions he took what he needed from the art he met on the way.

The versions of specific paintings done in the 1950s (he was by then over 70) are different: they rough up, exaggerate, distort, inflate and deface the original elements of Velázquez, Delacroix or Manet – Las Meninas, Women of Algiers or Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. These paintings, drawings and prints take some of their force from his own inventions, but some too from the violence they do to pictures well established in the viewer’s mind. He strips Delacroix’s Algerian women of their clothes, turning a domestic scene into a brothel or an Orientalist harem. Eventually he also strips off Manet’s male picnickers, so that what was once shocking – clothed men sitting with a naked woman – is put safely back into the classical past. It is the distorted blobs and curves of breasts and buttocks and the huge spade-like hands and feet that are now a challenge.

Why paint a version of what has been done before? Performers stage old pieces in modern dress and arrange old music for modern instruments to give them new life, but that is more like what Delacroix did when he copied Rubens, Rubens when he copied Caravaggio, or Matisse when he copied Chardin, than what Picasso does with Velázquez. His late dialogues with past art are strong, aggressive, sometimes amusing and argumentative. It was the right decision to have only his own paintings in the exhibition. Reproductions were what he had by him when he made them, and set beside the things they are derived from his pictures would shout them down without giving enlightenment in return. There are small photographs however, and plenty of comparative illustrations in the catalogue. They are all you need to remind you of his starting points.

Now Picasso has become a master others engage with. His abundance, the intensity of his engagement with old art and the power of his responses were not directed to a single end. Once Vasari-like notions of progress lose their cogency, each painter becomes his own school, and his best hope of recognition lies in being both distinct and different. Imagine an artist’s mind as an empty room with many doors. One is opened and what is found there is brought out and used. Picasso opened door after door, dragged item after item into his mental space and then made something new of it, sometimes transforming it, as he did when he made a bull’s head from a bicycle’s handlebars and saddle, sometimes taking it apart with clownish glee, sometimes making images that enter the imagination as strongly and lastingly as the masterpieces of Manet and Velázquez he transmogrified.

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