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Lucian Freud The Self Portraits exhibition at Royal Academy of Arts. Photograph from Buddington

By Matthews Collins

This show gets you thinking again about the myth of Lucian Freud. He paints realistically. Over sessions that can last many months he stalks his subjects, who are often upper-class women happy to degrade themselves in poses of posh abandonment. But they can be men too, and as he got older they came from different social levels. He did great fat women and fat men. And great working-class people, who had either made good like Kate Moss or Leigh Bowery or were simply themselves and we have little idea if that means being in a good place or not. In the early Nineties he painted portraits of Sue Tilley, a benefits supervisor, whose naked body is fabulously enormous. One sold at auction in 2008 for £17 million ($33.6 million at the time), setting a world record for the most expensive painting by a living artist.

His sitters tend to be isolated, but occasionally he has put several together. Even then, no connection to anyone else is revealed other than they are all part of a single visual arrangement with interesting shapes and angles. His own relationship to them is always the stalker and we’re constantly invited to imagine, too, as part of the excitement of his mythology, that it might be sexual. This exhibition is quite clever, then, in being only pictures of himself. We have to wonder what he’s after. We see him young, getting older and then very, very old. He was 88 when he died in 2011.

Across the 70 years of his career Freud had two distinct styles, the first lasted two decades and is crisp and clear all the way, the second is based on very loosely handled and often thickly applied paint but always ends up clearly realistic. He attended quite a few art schools but none for long. At 17 he joined the most significant, the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing founded by artist Cedric Morris. Morris observed features very closely and put them in quite abstract colour and texture arrangements. The results are intense and poetic. They powerfully influenced Freud. The earliest painting here, done in 1940, is from his time at the school. His face fills the canvas. He is 18 but could be 12. It is not a particular person but dreamlike, a boy in a story. Every feature is clear and is treated in isolation, like carefully drawing a sculpture, only it’s an ear or eyebrow.

Freud’s self-portraits in the Forties and Fifties are sharply graphic but also highly stylised. He picks out features and beautifully exaggerates them with a confident line. He tends to lend their character to other people, so whoever he pictures often seems to have his own eyes. You can see it in a 1947 pencil-and-ink portrait, showing his face outside a room looking in, and a young woman’s face inside looking at nothing – expression enigmatic, perhaps excited or just blank. We see one of her eyes and one of his, with a pleasantly weird effect of a double-sexed single entity.

In a large painting done more than 50 years later, Flora with Blue Toe Nails (2001), the enormous shadow of the artist’s head looms over the bedsheets of a naked woman. The shadow makes it count as a self-portrait of a kind, even though the model, hips twisted towards us (towards him), is really the subject. A few other pictures also present us with a tease of his presence and an invitation to speculate on it. Pictures of someone else but he has smuggled his own self in, as one explanatory wall label puts it. We see Freud’s reflection or shadow, or a rendering of a self-portrait on a little canvas leaning up against a skirting board. In Freddy Standing (2000-01), a large painting of an entirely naked young man, Freud can be spotted stabbing away with his paintbrush at tiny scale, a blur on the surface of the dark glass of a window as the rest of the scene explodes with yellow light. In Naked Portrait with Reflection (1980) we see his feet reflected in a mirror, appearing, surprisingly, in the top corner.

But is the reality and the myth of Freud really such a marvelous matter to consider? His limitations are that there can be bright colours but there is no singing colour. His composition, always an effortful labour, means there is no genuinely playful set of ways to make you enter an image. Other artists are imaginative about letting you into the mysteries of a painting and how it might allegorise the whole world, they seduce us into a sense of meaning, while his hostile paint surface and monotonous bleakness keep us out.

The wall labels insist on eroticism and psychology and the catalogue essays on old master greatness. Both reminded me after a while that the cult of Freud can be alienating. His self-reflection in the dark window in Freddy Standing is nicely done and there are lovely universes in all the yellow in the painting, but personally I was glad afterwards to see the Gauguin portraits at the National Gallery and find myself in a more artistically ambitious world.