Between them, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach are more than 150 years old. For the past half-century, each has painted the same limited motifs: portraits of family, close friends and favourite models, Freud’s garden in west London, the streets and park around Auerbach’s Primrose Hill studio.

Indifferent to novelty, each has an instantly recognisable style – Auerbach’s dense, almost sculpted impasto; Freud’s harshly lit paint as flesh – that has evolved little in recent decades. Yet in spite of – because of? – such intensely wrought endurance of vision and practice, the one-room exhibition Auerbach and Freud at the V&A: New Paintings is the most enthralling painting show currently in town.

The setting is a long, elegant, sage-green picture gallery, one of the oldest in Britain. Sun floods through the skylights. Extraordinarily, Auerbach and Freud – old friends, both London artists and Berlin émigrés – have never been paired before, and the 10 new pictures, some of them completed only days ago, hang gracefully and spaciously. The Old Master treatment animates, for this is also the first time new has met old in these galleries: Freud and Auerbach, dramatically lining one wall, engage in vivid dialogue with a parade of Constables down one side and Turners down the other. Next door, against a burgundy background reserved for foreign artists, Delacroix and Courbet look sideways at the new works, adding en passant to the conversation.

There’s no question of competition. What jumps out from all sides is the struggle of painters fighting with materials, pulling life – people, trees, the curve of a street, a winding path – out of paint: the direct, expressive, thickly textured encounter between subject, painting and artist. In this context, it is the rawness of Auerbach and Freud – the nervous momentum with which they painstakingly build up an image, the emphasis on process and change as a subject is scrutinised, forced into paint, reworked – that makes them look so anxiously of our own times.

Auerbach famously scrapes away a day’s work to begin again next morning, questioning and revisiting a single motif, taking six months to complete a painting. “I have to begin with a lump in my mind,” he says, which is perhaps why his figures recall at once the taut, elongated sculptures of Alberto Giacometti and the clotted, convulsive expressionism of Chaim Soutine. The crumpled, knotted portraits “Catherine Lampert” and “David Landau” in rich earthy colours, and that of his wife Julia en-crusted in pigment and glowing against swaths of deep blue, focus on the configuration of the head, its posture, tension and attentiveness, so that the physical presence of each sitter comes vibrantly alive, for all the abstracting tendency – dark hollow for eyes, broad slash for mouth – of bravura brushstrokes.

The toughness and weightiness unite him with Freud, who once explained that “I used to leave the face until last. I wanted the expression to be in the body. The head must be just another limb.” Freud’s head of the New York dealer Bill Acquavella, with its high, clever brow, eyes narrowing in for the kill, sinewy, mobile features, deep crevices, flesh rippling beneath the sharp collar of a summer-blue shirt, is a portrait of an acute mind in thought that also suggests the keen instincts of man as animal. Since “Girl with a White Dog” in 1950, where the human loneliness of Freud’s wife Kitty is accentuated by her physical closeness to a bull terrier, its thick fur echoing her towelled dressing gown, Freud has been a peculiarly brilliant painter of man and dog. The huge close-up “Eli and David” here, depicting his studio assistant David Dawson, beefy, blotchy, naked from the waist up, slumped in a chair with his tired-out whippet Eli in his lap, is as compellingly disconcerting a portrait of skin and pelt, animal and human bodies flopping in repose, as any he has done. How did they get the dog to stay still for the punishing length of a Freud sitting? The pose dredges up memories of pietàs, but it is the sense that the animal, sleeping yet still sensitive and alert, might get up at any minute and be off that gives tension and immediacy.

Yet how cool and pallid, like specimens under a dissector’s scalpel, David and Eli look when set alongside the sensory sparkle of Auerbach’s “Mornington Crescent – Summer”, all warm yellow and red dashing horizontals that, as you stand back, suddenly cohere into a cityscape of tower blocks, passing aircraft, curving road. It is a mark of the greatness of these two painters that neither dominates or loses by the juxtaposition, but rather their uniqueness is highlighted.

Yet more fascinating is the confrontation with the past – Auerbach’s correspondence with Turner’s dynamic, flickering surfaces, Freud’s shared sensibility with Constable’s harmonious, low-key palette and stability of composition. “In spite of the excessive piling on of paint, the effect of these works on the mind is of images recovered and reconceived in the barest and most particular light, the same light that seems to glow through the late, great, thin Turners,” wrote the painter Leon Kossoff of Auerbach. Here it is a joy to see radiant late semi-abstract landscapes, the flaring light and bright zigzags in “Park Village East”, for example, in the context of Turner, with the freshness and rush of air and wind also suggesting Constable.

Freud’s links with Constable here elaborate his reading at the marvellous 2002 Constable: Le Choix de Lucian Freud at Paris’s Grand Palais. That show boldly twinned a Freud portrait of a naked woman, her arms behind her back, with Constable’s monumental study of a massive, gnarled elm tree whose composition the Freud echoed. Here a masterly, brooding etching, “After Constable’s Elm”, mirroring the painting, is shown alongside it for the first time. With Constable, said Freud, “you think there’s nothing more moving than a muddy path going down to a gate. Tells you everything.” A large landscape of his back garden here, heavy with vegetation and with fallen aut-umn leaves scattered over the grave of a dog, has in its melancholy awkwardness an affinity with Constable, who spent a lifetime painting his backyards and gardens. Both are artists who distil memory and desire into the endlessly reiterated motif, and it is surely this conviction of place as feeling to which Freud referred when he called Constable “erotic, in the true sense” – as is his own art. The present illuminates the past here, and the past the present, in a show that beautifully demonstrates how even the most individual artists are as likely to expand on tradition as to smash it.

‘Auerbach and Freud at the V&A: New Paintings’, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, to May 29. Tel 20 7942 2000

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