Each Element is traditionally associated with an aspect of human nature: earth with body, water with soul, air with mind, fire with spirit. Individual artists tend to lean towards one or two elements, for example, Lucian Freud towards earth, Mondrian to air, Van Gogh to fire, Whistler to water. Some artists such as Turner unite all the elements into a sublime vision of nature and humanity.

Winter Work, by Clausen

Earth

We make a downward journey into the Earth and our own mortality. From prehistoric earth monuments to artists working with an ecological conscience, from art about food and sex, to art depicting child birth, illness and death. The earth element is embodied in our fundamental nature.

Water

Water comes in many different forms, from rivers to the sea, from fog to snow, from swimming pools to showers.

Great Wave by Hokusai

As water is the element of the soul we shall look at how artists use watery landscapes to paint about love and loss

Cloud study, by Constable

Air

How do artists convey the intangible immaterial essence of air? What imagery and techniques do they use? They may make studies of clouds such as Constable or they may paint birds, angels or aeroplanes. 

Abstract artists such as Mark Tobey and Bridget Riley paint expansive spaces that are devoid of matter. Air is related to the intellect and abstract thought. The art of Mondrian and Ben Nicholson exemplifies this aspect of the air element.

Fire

Fire is the symbol of transformation and destruction, of physical and spiritual desire, but it is also the light of the sun and the candle flame. Caravaggio and Joseph Wright of Derby create drama by the stark contrast of light and dark. 

Burning of the houses of Parliament, Turner

El Greco’s white light and elongated figures express spiritual desire, and the portraits of Berlin women painted by Otto Dix in the 1920’s radiate the heat of sexual desire.