With unpleasant weather on the march this weekend and for the coming week, Vincent van Gogh’s “Avenue of Poplars at Sunset” seems a nice reminder of autumn’s beauty.  It’s a quaint painting with not much going on.  You have a shadowed figure leaving a house behind as it treks down an avenue of poplars.

Yet, while there isn’t much going on, I find myself thinking that if I owned this painting, I’d want to hang it near the exit to my home — and that there’d be something comforting about looking at it before heading out.  I think I feel this way because the colonnade of trees is suggestive of a church.  The man or woman in black looks like a priest or nun.  Whether this is intentional, I do not know — but as with most master artists, I feel I can only suppose that it is.

The house in the background reminds me of the pulpit, the shadows cast by the trees remind me of pews, and the flaring orange leaves intermingled with yellows and greens (along with the blue of the sky) are also evocative of stained glass windows.  The little land bridge that the character is crossing is also reminiscent of a church threshold.  As I write this article and attempt to seize all evidence for the comparison, I become more thoroughly convinced that Vincent van Gogh intended this painting to be perceived as a nature refuge.

Most people consider art to be anything they so desire, but when considering art as serving a function within society — in much the same fashion that an architect, plumber, or barista serves a function — this painting suggests that art serves as a mental escape valve or sanctuary from the daily life.

When I consider this painting in comparison to others and attempt to generalize the the “escape valve” analogy, I realize that it seems to hold true.  Just as a painting of the calm serves as a momentary escape from the chaotic, a painting of the city as an escape from the rural, or a painting of the rural an escape from the city… so too does a painting of the dismal serve as an escape from joy, or a painting of the horrific and unnatural serve as an escape from the beautiful, delightful, and natural.

With that in mind, I wonder about the subconscious intent of modern art often seen in the lobbies of banks and other “official type offices” — depictions of unformed chaos and madness.  Maybe they’re to remind us that whatever is going wrong in that building isn’t half as bad as what’s in the painting.

Considering the point from another angle — whether in art or life, we choose our own safe-havens.  Sometimes though, it’s worthwhile to pause and consider not only what we are escaping too, but what we are escaping from.



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