A Freudian Strip

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Lucian Freud Tate Britain, London Until September 22 ***** (EXCELLENT)

Lucian Freud's paintings were once described as being 'real without being realistic'. It sounds like a bitchy putdown, and Francis Bacon, who came up with the description, might very well have meant it that way. But I wonder whether it isn't quite a perceptive thing to say.

The impact of Freud's paintings is notoriously difficult to account for; they are classical in technique, but unmistakably modern; they almost never have any explicit meaning, but pack a tremendous emotional punch. Real, but not realistic: that gets very close to the heart of the mystery.

Freud's paintings belong almost entirely to a single genre, and on the surface he isn't much interested in varying the genre. Most of his mature paintings are of figures in an interior - usually his own studio.

Traditionally, paintings of people are either anonymous or specific portraits; Freud likes to ignore that distinction, so that a nude can be a portrait of an individual. His intimate heads, on the other hand, are often described neutrally, as if they were hired models - startlingly, the Duchess of Devonshire is merely Woman In AWhite Shirt.

Freud could well turn to other subjects - his occasional paintings of plants, animals or townscapes are magnificent. But the figure in a studio is what interests him. And he has pursued this narrow subject in a narrow way.

His people are not caught in a natural movement but are very deliberately and artificially posed.

Sometimes they are required to hold an awkward and unnatural position, with one leg in the air or their arms crossed over the head, boxing the features.

The subjects of his portraits compose their features and look stolidly out at us. There is never any question that here are people facing a painter; the contracts and the consent between artist and model are embedded in the picture. Freud wants us to consider these things, and to understand the trust and intimacy between him and his sitters. They are never voyeuristic paintings, and these are not stolen glimpses; his sublime paintings of his adult daughters in nude abandon, and the portraits of the vast, uncorseted bulk of Leigh Bowery or Sue Tilley, The Benefits Supervisor, are saturated with a sense of trust.

We see immediately how these paintings came to be made, just as, in the self-portraits, he is always very careful to remind us that these are paintings of a reflection. …