It's life, but not as we know it

Lucian Freud has been called the world's greatest living realist painter. But whose reality is he painting? Tom Lubbock isn't sure, but he likes what he sees
LUCIAN FREUD'S "Portrait on a Red Sofa" is various kinds of picture, but a portrait is not obviously one of them. It is, I suppose, a nude. The figure is a naked woman, face nearly averted, limbs akimbo, posed over this piece of furniture in a most peculiar way, almost upside down, one hand placed on the floor, one foot over the back of the sofa. Or, if you look for an everyday life reading of this pose it can only be a sex-position, though whether auto-erotic or with off-stage partner isn't clear. Or again, there are inklings of grand narrative: imagine away the sofa and the room, and the woman becomes one of those noble, plunging figures from a Christian apocalypse, like something out Rubens' "Fall of the Damned". But he doesn't often bring it off like this,

"Portrait on a Red Sofa" is one of the 27 works in Lucian Freud: Some New Paintings, which opened last week at the Tate Gallery. The idea itself is heartening. This is a small show of Freud's pictures from the last five years or so, most of which - as the publicity elegantly phrases it - have "passed into" private collections. The Tate doesn't normally do this sort of display. But since Freud isn't represented by a British gallery who might put his recent work on public show, the Tate has taken on the job. In other words, this is public service curating. It assumes, I guess rightly, that there is a public who will want, will need to know the latest news from Lucian Freud.

What news is it? Nothing revolutionary. Freud hasn't found startlingly new models, as he did at the start of the Nineties with Leigh Bowery and a very large woman known as Big Sue. The paint has got even more dotty, so that when you go up to a picture expecting to enjoy some brushwork, you often find a granular moon-surface has accumulated, a heavy deposit which doesn't appear to correspond to what's depicted, just registers a much-corrected bit of anatomy. But there are some fantastic bits of painting, especially of dogs.

What sort of news do you expect from Freud, though? His business is reality, everyone says so. He is "the greatest living realist painter" (Robert Hughes), or even "the only living realist painter" (John Russell). But if you like the sound of that, remember that reality is admitted into his pictures on very strict conditions. It must, nearly always, be happening in his studio. And in a factual way, the main news here is that Freud's studio hasn't changed a lot from what we knew before. It still has its bare boards and discoloured walls, still that worn, leather sofa and plain bedding. People are still coming in to sit, stand or lie around, clothed or naked, to be painted. The dog - the old greyhound - hasn't died.

Freud operates by the rules of that by no means old genre, life-painting. Life-painting means painting people without any motive other than the desire to paint people, where all you can say about the models is that they're being painted. It's a modern practice, after all the traditional ways of doing humans - narratives, allegories, everyday scenes - had come to feel phoney. It's a radical reduction. Freud has made this genre his own, but it's worth remembering how odd its conventions are.

It involves not asking certain obvious questions - as with several of the pictures here. Looking at "Girl in Attic Doorway" for instance, you're not meant to ask: what's she doing up there with no clothes on, her legs dangling out of a trapdoor at the top of the wall? Or with "Pluto and the Bateman Sisters": what are those two women doing bare on a mattress with that sleeping dog? Or with "Sunny Morning - Eight Legs": what's he doing on that bed, limbs akimbo, arm embracing the same dog, and why are there two more male legs poking out from under the bed? At least, you're not meant to think up a story behind it.

On the other hand, I don't think you're meant to fall back on the common sense answer, either, that these scenes are simply studio constructions, artistic arrangements of flesh, dog, prop and background. No, they want to come over as some sort of real life. And they do. Freud doesn't work like that other life-painter Euan Uglow; Uglow is quite up-front about his studio constructions. In his pictures, the studio is reduced to a blank, neutral,setting. The models are pretty well anonymised. What you get are bodies, arranged.

But Freud's studio is always an actual, particular place. His sitters are identifiable individuals (family and friends). His compositions are awkward - suggesting that the incident has some inconvenient actuality, independent of the artist's whim. Yet his scenes don't look at all like slices of life. There's no pretence that they're taken from the everyday lives of these individuals. There's no pretence that this place is anything but that strange no-man's-land between fiction and actuality, an artist's studio.

This has a point, of course, or Freud has given it one. It becomes a form of concentration and isolation, a way of getting hold of and exposing the essential human thing, as apart from all social excrescences - a way of focusing on flesh, embodiment, mortality, sheer human presence. But at the same time, those stubborn, realistic questions about what's going on here can never really be held at bay. Straining between inarticulate drama and implausible verite, Freud's scenes take on the aspect of solemn play. What are these people doing? They've come into his studio to take part in a weird existential charade. "Who are you being, darling?" "I'm being stark human presence - isn't it obvious?" The studio itself then dramatises this play. It's not just a studio, but a deliberately equipped theatre of bleakness.

The charade continues, oblivious to its oddity, and sometimes it becomes simply comic. The intensity of the looking and the painting can't overcome the preposterousness of the set-ups. Or it might be better to say that Freud has fixed his art with tensions that much of the time pull it apart, but sometimes come wonderfully together - images which, whatever questions you put to them, have an answer, that prove themselves real every way. I come back to "Portrait On A Red Sofa". That is the good news here.