As Lucian Freud shows 'Some New Paintings' at the Tate, Tim Hilton considers the painter's long career and, overleaf, Bruce Bernard describes sitting for his friend

LUCIAN FREUD has a show opening at the Tate Gallery on Wednesday, or rather a "showing", as he likes to call his displays, for this is not a full exhibition but rather 20 paintings from the last few years. It's none the less a significant occasion. New works by Freud always look important and are treated as such. He is currently painting with more authority than at any other time in his career. Many people think him the greatest living painter - unless this distinction goes to Jasper Johns, who has a similar reputation in America.

Although their work is so different, Freud and Johns do have some temperamental similarities. Both are reclusive, even secretive, while their paintings are so expensive and so heavily promoted - by private dealers and public galleries alike - that their characters and activities are always the subject of curiosity. Freud and Johns are both sombre, even pessimistic artists. They are also isolated, having lost or abandoned the earlier comrades of their generation. Johns's famously creative partnership with Robert Rauschenberg ended nearly five decades ago. We used to associate Lucian Freud with Francis Bacon, once his friend, and with other figurative artists who formed their mature styles in the 1950s. That kind of alliance now seems irrelevant, and not only because Freud is in his seventies. He is such a powerful and distinct painter that nobody stands close to him. He belongs to no group and has no followers. His nude self-portrait of 1993, which is one of the best things that he has ever done, exemplifies his position of stateless individuality. He's like an emperor without an empire.

FREUD'S personal and family background must have at least something to do with his attitudes to art and the world. He does not speak much about beliefs, but clues are not hard to find. Readers of Esther Freud's recent novel Gaglow will realise how haunting, and continually potent, is her family tradition of displacement and artistic endeavour. As Lucian Freud's daughter (her portrait, with her little son Albie, is in the Tate display), she writes simultaneous narratives of life in London in the late Nineties and of a turn-of-the-century Mittel-European society that has not entirely disappeared, for it lives on in the creations of memory and grief. As Sigmund Freud's grandson, Lucian Freud surely inherited a knowledge of personal, perhaps universal human motivations. He also had to think, I surmise, about the fragile nature of formal culture. Sigmund Freud was not only the father of psychoanalysis. He was also the author of Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), a disquieting book, not much read today, whose title might serve as the sub-text of all his grandson's art.

Lucian Freud has never shown much interest in the progressive side of European modernism, though he was literally schooled in an atmosphere of liberal thinking about art and social reform. Born in Berlin in 1922, he is the son of the architect Ernst Freud. The family fled to England in 1933 and the young Lucian was sent to Dartington Hall and then to Bryanston. Dartington in those days had close connections with exiles from the Bauhaus, and produced both traditional crafts and self-consciously modern furniture (of much the sort that Francis Bacon was making at just that time, after his adventurous adolescent sojourn in Berlin). Bryanston was always, and remains, the home from home for children of wealthy artistic parents. Freud dislikes giving anything away about his personal life, but keeps his Who's Who entry up to date, and has recorded his Order of Merit (1993) in the Bryanston old boys' newsletter.

In this way the sensitive and (it is said) disobedient boy had his entrance to the cultivated British middle classes. His brother Clement, from precisely the same background, was to become a columnist in Punch and a Liberal Member of Parliament. What a gloriously bad MP Lucian would have been! He was always going to be an artist and has recently said that he wants to die while painting. At the end of the 1930s he was in art schools, first the Central and then the half-amateur little East Anglian School of Drawing and Painting, at Dedham in Constable country, run by Cedric Morris. To this day, I see something of Morris's flower paintings in Freud's occasional depictions of west London back gardens. But no doubt his main influence was in allowing Freud to do as he wished. Here is a mystery. What exactly was Freud's first style, and how did he arrive to paint and draw in such a way?

His work was small, self-consciously "naive" - therefore in truth not naive at all. There was a wonderful talent for portraiture. Freud's art was meticulously drawn, and had many connections with Surrealism. Some of Freud's friends have vehemently denied that his early work was Germanic. I think that it was, on occasion. It's obvious that the Berlin painter Otto Dix, with his pictures of decadent nightclub people and then the war-wounded, affected Freud, as this German-British artist made his own way, in peacetime Britain, towards his first public honour, an Arts Council purchase prize for his contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. In the following year he met his second wife. Freud had previously been married to Jacob Epstein's daughter, Kathleen Garman. In 1953 he wed Caroline Blackwood, of the Guinness family. They divorced in 1957. Freud retains a keen interest in the bohemian side of the aristocracy. In our changing times, Jerry Hall counts as a contemporary icon to vie with Lady Caroline. Freud's new pictures of Hall have the same observant feeling that we find in the portrait of Blackwood, but are more affectionate. Perhaps that is because she was bearing a child when he painted her. Freud likes birth and babies, and in his own way is a family man.

To return to Epstein for a moment. When Freud was married to his daughter, Epstein was the most controversial artist of the day, though his sculpture was in essence academic. How telling, for "the spiv Lucian Freud", as Epstein uncharitably called his son-in-law at the time of the young couple's divorce, has often been considered the most daring of 20th-century British artists. There was evidently no love between the Epstein and Freud. There was however some kind of influence. Epstein's portrait busts of his girl grandchildren, infants given to him via Freud, have an echo in the painter's later work of other children. People who are interested in Freud's apparently rootless pictures of more than one nude on a bed - male or female, sometimes accompanied by a dog (Freud's own Pluto) - should take a look at Epstein's Bowater Group, at the Edinburgh Gate to Hyde Park in Knightsbridge.

The similarity is plain. For a long time past, (when not reporting his extravagant gambling habits or night-time forays) interested people in the art world have talked about the curiosities of Freud's later manner. is enthusiasts make comparisons with Titian, Ingres, Rembrandt. Such parallels are unbelievable to me, since I do not have an elevated feeling before Freud's painting and believe that he derives from comparatively recent figurative sculpture. His fat and loaded brushwork, the scraping off, the slippy or slathering way in which a palette knife resembles a sculptor's flamboyant technique: all these things recall three-dimensional art, and I am also reminded of sculptors who could have been in the Royal Academy in the 1950s yet decided not to seek election, looking for their homes in bohemia and their patronage in the more adventurous salons of the London bourgeoisie.

FREUD'S affinity with half-academic modern sculpture also explains his fealty to the nude. Like practically all 20th-century figurative sculptors, he fails when he shows someone with their clothes on. Freud's paintings of garmented people, especially commissioned portraits of such chaps as the Lords Goodman and Rothschild and others,are especially disappointing. Here are men who are very contented with their experience of civilisation. Such pictures would not look out of place in the Royal Academy, which perhaps is one reason why Freud has always avoided the embraces of Burlington House. On the general question of clothes, I hesitate to disagree with Bruce Bernard (see right), who probably knows Freud and his art better than anyone. Good though the portrait of Bernard is, I would be interested to see him, through Freud's eyes, naked.

The unclothed single figure, female or - increasingly, in the last few years - male, is not only Freud's speciality. It is also the best conduit for his formidable sense of worry about the vulnerability of flesh. He is at his most impressive when conveying the feeling that life itself is of little value if it is not accompanied by art, or birth. Pregnancy obviously means a lot to Freud. I wish he would not paint virgins. His over-praised picture Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau) is famous at the moment because it has been sold in New York for $5,832,500 (pounds 3,578,200). Its subjects may be in an attic room in west London but look as if they have strayed there from Somerville College, Oxford. Despite his renowned forays into both low life and high society, Lucian Freud's forte is not in social realism. Here again he resembles his grandfather Sigmund.

Why "After Watteau"? The French-Flemish painter's only inventive descendant was Degas, who had a fastidious nature and made the most delicate and oblique observations about feminine style in his part of Paris. Freud, who is not in competition with Degas in this area of delicacy, is a city painter of enclosed London spaces. His attics, together with the seedy beds and bathrooms - not to mention his brown palette, repetitious composition and general air of gloom - all make him part of the "Kitchen Sink" school of the late 1950s, whose painters were his near contemporaries. The Tate exhibition may tell us that, in his advanced age, Freud has left some of this dingy inheritance behind him.

! 'Lucian Freud: Some New Paintings': Tate, SW1 (0171 887 8000), Wed to 26 Jul; free.

Brush with a friend

What's it like to sit for Lucian Freud? Uncomfortable, time-consuming, but fascinating too, as Bruce Bernard (right) found out

I HAD known Lucian Freud for rather a long time before I first sat for him. He had occasionally suggested that he would like to "work from" me, a phrase he uses more than any other in that connection, and which is entirely appropriate to his procedure as a painter of portraits, which of course he essentially is - whether painting people, clothed or naked, or dogs, plants, sinks and floorboards.

For a long time I was unwilling to respond to his sporadic overtures as I very much dislike sitting or standing still. One small portrait, I had been reliably told, had been completely wiped out and restarted after three months of sittings - and this threat appalled me. It was only when Lucian suggested an etching and I had heard that his working speed had appreciably increased, that I considered accepting what I saw as a burdensome honour.

Two drawings preceded the etching and I think I counted 28 sittings of about two hours each for the whole process, but perhaps that was just the etching. Well, it was so good of course, and seemed one of his very best etched heads, however wearily brooding or resigned it made me appear. And I was interested to find that bits of modelling - particularly in the forehead - while not seeming justified by what he had seen, were nevertheless quite right in an inexplicable way.

So I was rather reluctantly converted to my role, and when a painting was suggested five or six years later and he confirmed a further acceleration in his working speed, I consented with a keen interest in the result. Lucian, as is his custom, asked me how I would like to sit, but I decided I would prefer to stand, suggesting a pose with my hands in my pockets, looking gloomily slightly downwards - a stance entirely natural to me. I very soon realised how clever I was to conceal my hands, as this must have saved me about seven sessions - hands being, in Lucian's work, always observed and painted with such concentration and a sense of significance. Someone - I forget who - wrote that in this picture I seemed a little like one of Van Gogh's "Potato Eaters". I didn't mind that as I revere the artist and his Nuenen pictures (as does Lucian) and I also have a great appetite for potatoes. I think the portrait remarkably faithful - descended more from Manet, perhaps - and was rather pleased to see it as a poster on either side of the Whitechapel Gallery entrance. At first it was suggested that I wouldn't make a good poster for the Underground (in place of an officially frowned-on nude), to which Lucian had replied: "But he looks like a commuter, doesn't he?"

But for the next portrait (1997, above), I decided to come clean and put my hands on my knees, almost as a confession of having in the previous instance withheld the legitimate property of the painter - but perhaps also because I had felt deprived at not having seen how he would deal with them.

This portrait, though, affected me quite differently. It shocks me still (salutarily, I would say) and I feel as if my nervous system had been penetrated in an unprecedented way, and also that anyone looking at it over the next few hundred years will know something essential (and not necessarily favourable) about me. And in the picture's nervous charge the twice-painted hands play a very important role. It must be, I feel, on the highest level of Lucian Freud's achievement, and I like to think it almost as remarkable as his first picture of The Big Man (1976-77), which seems to me a masterpiece very close in quality and spirit to Ingres's Monsieur Bertin.

Freud's "naked portraits" are something else, and probably more important to the canon of figurative painting, but of the clothed ones (and the clothes are surely unsurpassed) I particularly admire those of Bella - with or without mandolin. So much herself does she seem that I am sometimes surprised, or at least momentarily disappointed, that her painted image cannot acknowledge my presence. The great series of paintings, etchings and drawings of the artist's mother are staggering in their devoted persistence and equilibrium as a group. Harry Diamond, who appeared first in the Interior in Paddington (1951), is always a powerfully affecting if disturbing presence, and the curiously beautiful Woman in a Butterfly Jersey (1990- 91) seems to convey respect, friendship and the painter's habitual concerns in a perfect combination. The list is very long: the recent likeness of Francis Wyndham is such a real painting and a gently sustained examination of its subject and his shirt that it seems wonderful that an artist can still do such things in our time.

What remains with me about the process of posing - apart from the "will this never end?" feeling as I climbed the deeply unattractive stairs, and the moderate discomfort and anxiety involved in keeping still - is that Lucian is a very considerate exploiter of his subjects' voluntary inertia. He provokes a positive desire for the success of the work for his own and his art's sake that all his models share. He quite often converses remarkably freely, both seriously and funnily, while actually painting, but above all he never implies with a single gesture that he knows it all, or even any of it, for absolutely certain. I now feel that the staircase was climbed 200 times for a very good purpose and that I have gained enlightenment in several unlooked-for ways. Enough for the time being though.

! This article was written for the auction catalogue of Freud's 'Large Interior, W11 (After Watteau)', which sold for $5,832,500 at Sotheby's, New York, on 14 May.

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