When we took ourselves off to his London exhibition, I was familiar just a little with Freud’s work and recall, but have not kept, a Radio 3 interview with him some years ago.  His retrospective at Tate Britain was manageable, occupying just four or five rooms; we drove easily, parked easily and for free and were home again three hours later, fortified only a little by lukewarm espresso without sweetener from the basement cafe.


Freud has ploughed a lone figurative furrow that is the antithesis of fashionable modernism.  As Auerbach says, he has no manner to fall back on; when he begins to develop a style he stops and makes a new start.  The paintings begin with painstakingly literal studies of flowers, horses — whatever is in front of him, what is there; it is not immediately apparent in which century they were painted.  Moreover every so often during the evolution of his large oeuvre, he stops and paints a still life or the view from his Paddington window with — once more — the same dazzling but pointless photographic fidelity.  In this way, perhaps, he refreshes himself.


Thus the work is all painting and all sur le motif (in Cézanne’s sense) in a documentary spirit that is remarkably ‘straight’ — unvarnished, ungarnished.  But his subjects are nevertheless mostly people: he is more of a portraitist than anything else and here the “straightness” is more of an achievement and often criticised. Is this ugliness, deformity chosen on purpose? (One can see the origin of some of Jenny Saville’s inspiration.) Or is Freud once more just being unsentimental, painting what is there?  We are perhaps conditioned by our aesthetic: nudes should be beautiful.  The vision of these people who pass through his studio is of mankind seen in raw essentials, deserving of pity.  But though he evokes pity the painter does not feel it.  There is no room for compassion in the interstices of the brushwork, the objectively-tuned hairs of sable or hog.


Nevertheless some degree of warmth seems to attach itself to Freud family members more than to mere acquaintances.  So numbing is it to pose for large amounts of time that he might have painted whoever was willing to oblige, often family members, and to have painted dead monkeys when no one was. There are many paintings of his daughters, clothed and naked, which seem both successful and charitable.


Overall though he eschews meaning and interpretation in favour of “looking” and this comes to seem, after all, a modernist aesthetic.  He escapes from feeling into description.  Although this oeuvre is ultimately as hugely autobiographical as a Rubens canvas is narrative, little leaks through of what is apparently a rather bleak life.  There is nothing to celebrate.