Art: Scenes through a glass starkly

    Mariele Neudecker’s stunning show puts the lost romance back into German landscapes — and the lost heart into St Ives, says Waldemar Januszczak

    Hitler stole the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, too, and Wagner’s overtures, and the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and most of the best fonts of the gothic era. So, an obvious way to understand Neudecker’s oeuvre is to imagine that she is now busily stealing all this stuff back. Her show at Tate St Ives has the rocky islands in it; it has the spooky forest of firs; it has the mountain tops, the mists, and the sunsets — all carefully re-created in miniature and redisplayed in Neudecker’s trademark glass tanks. These tanks are like three-dimensional Friedrich paintings. But where Friedrich only ever offered one viewpoint, Neudecker provides you with 360-degree journeys and a whole bunch of atmospheric reflections in the glass thrown in.

    Neudecker has also stolen back that quintessentially Germanic disruption of scale that so appealed to the Aryan Romantics. By making his landscapes huge and his witnesses tiny, Friedrich engineered an appropriate sense of awe at the spectacle of God’s limitless creation: think of that ant-sized monk on a deserted beach, gazing out at the endless marine expanse before him. Neudecker, however, in a cute modern reversal, makes the landscape tiny and you, the witness, correspondingly huge.

    This swapping of roles appears not to diminish her vistas. If anything, it manages to make them feel even bigger. I puzzled over this paradoxical sensation of size for quite a while as I stared into a glass case filled with soaring Alpine peaks — and then it came to me. Of course the miniature mountain range I was looking down on felt huge:

    I was being treated to a divinity’s view of it. I was God looking down on my own handiwork. Thus, this tiny but smart show puts you in touch with your Nietzschean superself and makes something much deeper of a visit to St Ives than a visit to St Ives usually is.

    Is there anywhere in Britain today more spoilt or phoney or misunderstood or silly than St Ives? Off the top of my head, I cannot name such a place. St Ives today is an offensive parody of a quiet Cornish fishing village rather than a true descendant of one. Nobody expects the place to be stocked with actual sailors any more, or to make a real living from an actual marine bounty, but does it have to be as plastic and horrible as this? As you trudge past the recurring fudge shops and the countless studio galleries peddling shockingly poor art in hideously antiqued fishing-village conversions, it is almost impossible to imagine that this was once an inspirational artistic destination that attracted to it most of the biggest heroes of British modernism. To think that Barbara Hepworth settled here, that Ben Nicholson came, that Peter Lanyon lived hereabouts, and Roger Hilton, and Patrick Heron. To think that this place changed British art. St Ives today is a momentously false experience, with only the Tate enclave on the beach offering any serious aesthetic resistance to the relentless gale of tat that blows through here.

    I think I know why Neudecker has been granted this unlikely opportunity to compare her reclaimed Teutonic uber-moods with the repugnant Captain Birds Eye atmospheres of modern St Ives. Someone spotted the brilliant re-creation of Friedrich’s shipwreck that she contributed to a theme show devoted to the sea, held at Tate Liverpool a couple of years ago, and imagined that a correlation existed between Neudecker’s nostalgic nautical despair and St Ives’s wreck-strewn piratical past. They were wrong. We have here a hilarious meeting between German chalk and Cornish cheese.

    The best thing about St Ives continues to be the light — the one Cornish pleasure that the holiday industry cannot destroy. Neudecker is interested in light, but not in any of the cheerful Caribbean tricks it pulls off in these parts with colour and atmosphere. She is interested in light as a conveyor of gloomy emotion, and is as skilled at implying its absence as she is in mimicking its presence. Thus, her show is melancholy, damp and dark. It occupies a single gallery with four glum works in it, and there is also a video piece playing in the entrance hall that involves listening to Schubert’s Winterreise cycle through earphones while the screen in front of you takes your shivering Nietzschean soul on a tour of some of the colder vistas of the Arctic Circle. It’s a curious offering to lay before the summer visitor to St Ives. But I found it invigorating.

    The most ambitious of the romantic German spectacles stolen back from Hitler is a stupendous view of a misty mountain range, called Over and Over, Again and Again, which unfolds across three glass tanks and was commissioned, I was delighted to see, by the Met Office. It seems pertinent to remember here that when Hitler first dreamt of starting a new political party, he was in the Alps, looking down from just such a mountain top. I, too, felt successfully transported by Neudecker’s ersatz slab of Alpine Bavaria, up, up and away, to where dangerous dreams can be had.

    It wasn’t the Nazis, however, who stole the credibility and cool from all those dis-quieting fairy tales about witches and wolves and dark forests, which were once a staple of every European childhood. Our native witches and wolves were seen off by imported masses of Pikachus and Ninja Turtles. But the best of Neudecker’s tanks, a spooky forest vista called I Don’t Know How I Resisted the Urge to Run, is a re-creation of one of those eerie petrified forests in which so much terrifying fairy-tale action was once set. Peering into the dark forest from this angle and that, you can never see through to the other side. Something evil is living in there, you imagine. What can it be? The wicked petrified forest made me think again of the Chapman brothers’ lost masterpiece Hell, which was destroyed in the recent Momart fire that encouraged so much hideous snideness from so many media commentators. I have never thought Clive James to be either desperate or obnoxious until I saw him on Have I Got News for You, having a giggle about the art lost in the Momart blaze. Anyhow, like Neudecker’s forest piece, Hell was a display of darkness preserved in a glass tank, an aquarium of evil filled with warring and cannibalistic soldiers, many of whom sported Nazi uniforms. In its explicitness and its offensiveness, though, Hell was utterly English, and entirely of its times.

    Neudecker’s forest speaks the altogether shiftier language of German Romantic metaphor and avoids outrageous English explicitness. By reusing so much of the imagery that the Nazis stole from Germany’s cultural past, Neudecker appears to be facing up to submerged Teutonic truths. Her appetite for metaphors, however, is actually part of a continuing pattern of German avoidance. In the end, Hell, which showed evil full-on rather than hinting at its presence in exquisite metaphorical re-creations, was a more significant artwork than anything here.

    That is certainly not to say that anything on show here is negligible. On the contrary. Neudecker, who lives in Bristol now, and who seems to be being passed around the nation’s perimeter via the various regional Tates, deserves to make it to Tate Britain as well. Here, she would make a strong candidate for a future Turner prize, not only because her art is so evocative and imagi- native, but also because its atmospheres are so terribly Turneresque