Yes, it cannot be denied. There has been something problematical about Lucian Freud and the French public, Cécile Debray, the Pompidou's curator of the first major survey of Freud's work in Paris for almost a quarter of a century, tells me over Steak a la Sauce Béarnaise in the Pompidou's sixth-floor Restaurant Georges, giving me her most winning smile. Freud was last exhibited here at the Pompidou in 1987, during the dog days of summer. The show wasn't well attended. Such attention as it received was quite dismissive: one critic called it a species of kitsch.
Debray finds it quite difficult to describe what the problem was – perhaps she is already tired of talking to mere journalists – but it has something to do with the fact that, for a long time, the French thought that he was practising an art whose time had come and gone: he was a figurative painter, practising the ancient art of portraiture. Why wasn't this man into abstraction and conceptualism like almost all the rest? Why did he choose not to benefit by the lessons of Abstract Expressionism? Why did he have to persist in being a cussed, independent-minded individualist? Why had he chosen to leave modernity behind?
And so, unfortunately for the French, by that moment in 2008 when Freud became the world's most expensive and collectable living painter, they seemed profoundly out of step with the rest of the world. French collectors had shown practically no interest in his work, and the Pompidou itself owned just one small painting, dating from the 1940s. And now, even if they wanted to buy them, they couldn't possibly afford to...
Now, of course, he cannot afford not to be accommodated. And yet, and yet ... even today, I feel, as I walk around this themed show of Freud's work situated elsewhere on the 6th floor, there is still something about the way it is presented which is seeking to intellectualise him in order to make the French public understand quite why they should be taking him so seriously. To intellectualise is to give status, credibility. That is the Pompidou's gift to Freud. Yes, the French must have him on their own terms – and these are not quite the terms of the painter himself.
The exhibition consists of 55 works, spread across four galleries, which means that it is about one third of the size of the great Tate retrospective of 2003, and it has a theme: Freud and the studio. The walls are two shades of grey, as is the floor. Visual austerity is the key to seriousness. As in the Giacometti retrospective of 2004, Freud is critically appraised in relation to his various studios, the crucible of his creations. The studio is a limiting, a framing space, in which performances take place involving painter and that with which he chooses to surround himself – objects, plants, human flesh. The studio is a "metaphor" for painting, not a real place with paint-smeared walls, heaps of old rags, a half-bust divan bed, and a tap drip-dripping into an old butler's sink.
So this approach is both stimulating and limiting. It means that there are paintings here which are not first-rate. They're here to illustrate a theme – or a sub-theme within that overarching theme of the studio. And there are others which fit oddly with that theme. Here is the argument of the exhibition. Freud is not first and foremost a figurative painter, feeling his way forward, doing what he feels compelled to do, by his gifts and his temperament. He is, above all things else, a painter who is reflecting upon the nature of figurative painting by painting figuratively. That is the great distinction here: he is reflexive. He is, in short, intellectualising as he works. If he were not, the charge of being an old-fashioned portrait painter could be levelled at him. If that happened, the French public would continue to disdain him, and the show would bomb. So it is simply not true that he merely belongs in a certain tradition. He is interrogating that tradition, testing the limits of his validity.
Now anyone who has read the few searching interviews that Freud has ever given knows that this doesn't quite square with the character or his working methods. This is not to say that Freud is not immensely thoughtful or that he has not spent much of his life looking long and hard at paintings – his own and other people's. It is to say that he is not a conceptualist. He does not deal in ideas which then transform themselves, as if by some miracle, into paintings. At his best, he deals in the stink, the feel, the sheer immediacy of human flesh. The Pompidou slightly begs to differ.
But the problem is a little more general than that. The trouble with Freud is that his spirit does not like to be pinioned. He is the arch-individualist. In fact, he is almost legendary for daring to be himself, quite uncompromisingly. In the past this has included fist fights, and roaring through the night with Francis and Muriel at the Colony. So when we read in one of the gallery's extended wall texts that so and so forms part of what has become part of the evolution of an entire oeuvre, that word so beloved of the French, it strikes the wrong note altogether. Freud has never thought in those terms. His work may have evolved, but he would be the first to admit that there have been many significant failures, paintings that deserve to be forgotten. An oeuvre doesn't make space for failure. It believes in a monumental totality. By conceptualising in this way, the account slightly falsifies. It also falsely aggrandises.
In the third of the galleries, Freud revisits the classics – which means Freud's re-workings of paintings or motifs by Chardin, Cézanne and Constable. The Chardins are wonderful, the large reprise of the Cézanne is not. It is awkward and unresolved. The greatest of Freud's re-imaginings of the classics, a large figure group after Watteau called Large Interior W11 (1981-1983), is not present at all – in spite of the fact that it should have been here because it figures prominently in the catalogue. We feel, once again, that the sub-theme is here to prove that Freud does not work intuitively, day by day, investing every precious moment. He is forever standing back and positioning himself, not only in relation to other painters, but in relation to other ideas about painting. This was never really true of Freud – and it is still not quite true of this man of 88, who continues to paint, when he can, with a kind of manic urgency. The fact is that he doesn't like his own past, not all that much. As with any true maker, writer or artist, he lives and breathes for the unfolding riches of the present moment, for what he will achieve, not for what he has achieved.
Just one of the four galleries is an unqualified success, and that is the fourth gallery, which gives itself over to large-scale paintings of the most abundantly fleshy of Freud's sitters. Here are figures in poses of total abandonment, Leigh Bowery from the front and from behind, or that gloriously, fleshily abundant portrait of Sue Tilley, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), cheek squashed up against the end of the sofa, breasts like great donging bells, which sold for $33m in 2008. They sprawl, they wallow about the picture space in states of extreme lassitude. The flesh looks so dense, so animal. Nothing seems to be in movement; time stands still. There is no refinement of any kind and no posing here. This looks like flesh felled in the way that a great tree is felled. These are not pre-arranged compositions. They are paintings which have emerged into being over time without any preparatory drawing whatsoever. Freud begins at the centre and works his way out towards the periphery. If it so happens that the composition is moving in the direction of an awkward shape, an extra bit gets added on. Paintings will prove to be what they prove to be. Freud's job is to keep at it. As he said quite recently, "I want to go on until there's nothing more to see." Atta boy.
Lucian Freud, Pompidou Centre, Paris (Centrepompidou.fr) today to 19 July