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.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern