The Four Elements: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water in Art

By Bunker, Katherine M.; Farr, Margaret F. et al. | Art Education, September 2001 | Go to article overview

The Four Elements: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water in Art


Bunker, Katherine M., Farr, Margaret F., Rogan, Maura C., Art Education


Recommended for upper-elementary and middle-school students.

THE FOUR ELEMENTS (air, earth, fire, and water), first identified as such by the Greek philosopher Empedocles in the 5th century B.C.E., constitute the fundamental aspects of life. The four artworks in this Instructional Resource represent varying facets of each element. The whirligig entitled America incorporates wind as a literal component of the artwork; it is also fashioned with metal, which is heated with fire to heighten its malleability. The Equestrian and Four Figures sculpture is made of terracotta. The translation of this Latin term, "baked earth," reflects its origin through the firing of the clay (earth). The Eruption of Vesuvius illustrates how fire can become a horrific spectacle when its power extends beyond the boundaries of human control. The wind's presence is depicted through the billowing clouds of smoke scudding across the night sky. Shiva Nataraja represents a symbolic and ritualistic use of water, for myth relates the god's locks to the origin of the seven holy rivers of India. The creation and use of the work also involve earth, fire, and water: the sculpture was made through the lost wax process, and in religious ceremonies was bathed in water from a sacred river.

By studying the diverse aspects of the Four Elements, students will be able to:

1. Identify the Four Elements.

2. Understand ways in which the elements can be combined, both in nature and in art.

3. Comprehend how humankind accounts for the existence of the Four Elements in art and myth.

4. Cite specific materials and techniques used by artists that incorporate one or more of the elements. AIR

Frank Memkus, United States

Whirligig entitled America, c. 1938-42, wood and metal

Height with paddle up: 80 3/4 in.

Restricted gift of Marshall Field, Mr. and Mrs. Robert A. Kubiceck, Mr. James Raoul Simmons, Mrs. Esther Sparks, Mrs. Frank L. Sulzberger, and the Oak Park-River Forest Associates of the Woman's Board of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1980.166

Looking Questions

1. Patterns are designs created by repeating or alternating colors and shapes. Identify several different patterns in America. What effect do these patterns have on the overall personality of the work?

2. A whirligig is designed to spin. What parts of America might spin in the wind?

3. Frank Memkus had no formal art training. America, however, is the product of several artistic decisions and processes. What decisions did Memkus make in designing this whirligig? What processes did he use to create it?

About the Artwork

Many artworks portray the wind's effects by means of illusion, but few actually include the wind as a vital component. One exception is the whirligig. Whirligigs are spinning creations designed by amateur artists for placement in gardens or on rooftops. Many, like this one, contain gears and windmill mechanisms. The blowing wind activates the whirligig's moving parts.

America was created by Frank Memkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who lived in Wisconsin. Completed during World War II, this 6-foot-tall whirligig festively and appropriately sports painted carvings of flags, propellers, an airplane, and on top, a sailor. When placed outside-perhaps on the Fourth of July-America came alive in the wind: the mariner's paddles rose, the propellers whirled, and the flags spun in celebration of the country Memkus called home (Wood & Edelstein, 1993).

Discussion Questions

1. Air (wind) is required to move the spinning components of America. Aside from this literal use, how is the element referred to in the whirligig? (planes fly in air; flags flap in breeze) How is the element of water referenced? (sailor)

2. Consider how branches of the military are represented in the whirligig and how the branches refer to the elements of air, water, and earth. …

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