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Conor refers to Alice's feelings about Yeats's play The Hour Glass, and her painting Yeats's Hour Glass might be a good starting point for a consideration of her work. The Hour Glass concerns the fate of a teacher who has persuaded his pupil and the world about him that only what is accessible to the senses can be real. An angel appears and informs him that since he has denied the reality of Heaven and Purgatory the gates of Heaven and Purgatory are closed to him. He replies that since he has also denied the reality of Hell those gates must be closed to him too. The angel replies:

Hell is the place of those who have denied;
They find there what they planted and what dug,
A lake of spaces and a Wood of Nothing
And wander there and drift, and never cease
Waiting for substance.

He is told that he can avoid that fate if during the period of the running of sand through an hour glass he can find one person who has resisted his teaching and knows of the existence of the other world. He has by his side a 'fool' who has had experience of the other world, but he refuses to share it.

Yeats's Hour Glass, 1960/61, oil, 91.3 x 91 cm
Coll. Ulster Museum

In the catalogue of the 1970 retrospective exhibition Alice's painting is dated 1960. (24) 1960 was the year in which she decided to concentrate full time on her painting. (25) I, rightly or wrongly, tend to regard her work of the 1950s as a sort of prehistory and the real story to have taken place through the ten years of the 1960s in three phases marked by three exhibitions in Belfast, the first and second in 1962 and 1966 in the CEMA/ACNI art gallery in Chichester Street, the third in Queen's University in 1968. She died unexpectedly of lung cancer (she was a heavy smoker) in 1969 and a major retrospective was held in the new Arts Council Gallery in Bedford Street - also shown in the Brooke Park Gallery, Londonderry - in 1970. Thereafter her work was badly neglected but there was an exhibition in the Ulster Museum in 2000, to mark the receipt of the Trudi Berger collection. (26) This exhibition was given the title 'Ireland's first Abstract Expressionist.' I would hesitate to call her an 'abstract expressionist' but there may be something in it. (27)

(24) In the Ulster Museum's catalogue of holdings it is dated 1961. The Lyric Players production of The Hour Glass was in its 1961-2 season.

(25) According to Mercy Hunter in The Irish Times article, 2/11/68.

(26) There was at the same time a small exhibition in the Lyric Players Theatre accompanying a production of Helen Lewis's ballet A Time to remember with music by Raymond Warren. The Ulster Museum archive refers to a 'programme of music, poetry and dance' dedicated to Alice's memory in 1970 under the title There was a time,  organised by Raymond Warren and Helen Lewis. It says that Alice had suggested that Helen should do a ballet based on that passage in Ecclesiastes. This was well before Helen's book A Time to speak, first published in 1992. 

(27) In her discussion with schoolgirls in 1964 she was asked who was her favourite contemporary artist and she replied 'Rothko'. Rothko had just had his first solo exhibition in London earlier in the year. 

According to the Viennese writer and art theorist Leopold Rochowanski, Cizek described his teaching method for adults as having three phases:

The awakening of emotions (Expressionism)
The awakening of the brain (Cubism)
The awakening of the eyes (Kinetism)
New feeling, new thinking, new vision

(28) I have this from a brief article on Cizek's 'kinetism' on the website of the designer Via Estela Kali - I haven't been able to find another source but my guess is it that it comes from Rochowanski's book Der Formwille der Zeit in der angewandten Kunst. Mit 93 Abbildungen von Arbeiten der Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule, Abteilung des Regierungsrates Professor Franz Cizek, Wien, Burgverlag 1922.

If we forget about 'cubes' and take the word 'Cubism' as referring to a research into clearly defined form (following the Impressionist/Neo-Impressionist research into colour) it is a curiously apt description of the three phases Alice passed through in the 1960s. 

Merging elements, 1961, oil, 71.1 x 91.4 cmColl. Ulster Museum

Welding in, 1964, oil, 55 x 75 cm. Priv. coll.

Coiled light structure, 1968, mixed media, 32 x 24"Priv.coll 

Whether or not the first phase was actually influenced by American Abstract Expressionism - other than through a general feeling that such things were possible - it is certainly, like the rest of her work in the 1960s, non-representational and in its first phase it could be called 'Expressionist' if by that is meant based on a free flowing (ie not obviously structured) expression of feeling.

What sort of feeling? Conor O'Malley's account of her approach to set design gives us some idea. We also get some idea from the discussion with school girls mentioned earlier. This was organised by their teacher, Mercy Hunter, herself an artist though very different from Alice. Mercy, wife of the painter and sculptor George McCann ('Maguire' in Louis MacNeice's poem Autumn Sequel) tells us on the tape that in an exam set for Easter 1964 she had asked her pupils who was their favourite painter and several had replied Alice Berger Hammerschlag. One of them had said she would really like to meet Alice so Mercy had arranged it. In an article published in 1969, after Alice's death, Mercy wrote:

'In spite of her academic upbringing, which she always claimed was a most useful training, her work from 1947 onward became increasingly abstract, and its symbolic content was much influenced by her knowledge of psychology and by her appreciation of Eastern philosophy.

'By 1962 she had perfected a fluid and tactile style, full of personal meaning. Of this period I remember a very moving picture by her called Calvary Old and New. It is now in the collection of the Ulster Museum Gallery. This, with its three cross-like shapes symbolised suffering and despair, and yet contained a soaring quality which resolved into the brilliant lighting at the top of the picture, to give the idea of resurrection and hope.

Calvary Old and New, 1961, oil, 101.5 x 127 cmColl: Ulster Museum

'By 1966 she had gradually turned away from this fluid technique, and her work resolved into solid and significant shapes, shapes significant in themselves but also depending on colour for their interpretation: for colour was always vitally important to her on a mystical plane - reds and the earth colours signified to her life and energy; greens had a suggestion of growth; blues fulfilled the abstract values of life in the very best and aspiring sense; dull browns and blacks were the negation of life.'

(29) Outlines, October 1969, reproduced in the catalogue of the 1970 retrospective.

This interest in colour - not so much colour symbolism as the emotional experience of colour - comes up in the discussion with Mercy's pupils. Alice talks about red and orange as colours that pull you up, ambition that can be good (bright red) or bad (dull red), the force that drives people on. Blue she refers to as 'Spiritual - a word I have to use for want of a better one.' At the beginning of the discussion she toys with the words 'psychology' and 'spiritual', finding them unsatisfactory, preferring 'philosophy' but still not happy with it. Asked by one of the girls what has influenced her in Yeats's poetry she replies 'His philosophy - I don't share it, but it's immensely fascinating ...' The message, she says, is 'Look at yourself, you're just the same, do something about it.' The essential theme she finds in Yeats is that things just repeat themselves. We think every war is going to be the last war, is going to resolve something, but they just go on. 'An effort is always needed.' We're surrounded by people but to make a unity 'You have to work ... need a philosophy. It's a huge word which I don't like really.' Talking about her painting Calvary she says that Calvary isn't an event that happened once a couple of thousand years ago, it is always with us. This is the 'essence of learning in life ... we don't learn from history ... but we could.'