Illustrated companion

Lucian Freud began consistently to paint the nude in about 1965-6 after a change in his method of painting had given him the means to render flesh in a way more satisfactory to him than in his earlier work. Since then he has created a sequence of paintings which strikingly extend the history of the nude in Western art into the late twentieth century. Freud's nudes are the outcome of prolonged observation under very bright light. But the results are very far from simply being the totality of what the artist sees, as Freud himself has indicated: 'When I look at a body I know it gives me choices of what to put in a painting ... there is a distinction between fact and truth. Truth has an element of revelation about it.' His use of the word 'revelation' seems to confirm what is evident from the paintings, that Freud's nudes are the expression of a distinctive vision, embracing both the physical and the psychological, of what it is to be human. The most immediately striking aspect of this vision, of course. is the complete lack of idealisation, the unblinking objectivity of his treatment of the body, so that the images of it do indeed represent a truth, that of the everyday reality of the flesh.

The effect of Freud's nudes, and their presence for the spectator, is heightened in a number of ways. One is through the slight awkardness and tension, even distortion, that can appear in the pose, particularly felt in this painting, where there seems to be some ambiguity as to whether the model is standing or leaning. Freud also often, as here, places the figure so that it appears very close to the surface of the picture, rather than in a notional space beyond, and is thus presented to the spectator with almost embarrassing intimacy. Another significant characteristic of Freud's nudes is the way in which they are painted, the flesh being vividly realised in a wide variety of brushstrokes which have an intense presence. It is this ability to embody his vision in the physical substance of paint that, not least, gives Freud's paintings their impact.

The 'rags' of the title are the painters rags, used to wipe brushes, which accumulate in the artist's studio, and which Freud has here used as the background to the model. This choice, and the reference to it in the title, suggests that a sub-theme of this painting is that of the life of the artist, as exemplified in the triangular relationship between artist, model and painting equipment, in the studio. This has been an important theme of some of the twentieth century's greatest artists, Picasso. Matisse and Braque notable among them.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.249