Suho’s ‘Self-Portrait’: Reinterpreting Van Gogh


Suho (Kim Junmyeon), better known as the leader of the world-renowned K-Pop group, EXO, debuted his first solo mini-album earlier in March. Inspired heavily by Van Gogh, the album explores the singer’s connection with the artist.

It might seem strange to associate K-Pop and Van Gogh with each other, especially since the former is viewed as bright, energetic and cheerful. That’s why Suho’s Self Portrait minimises this stereotype, and shows a mature side of both himself and the genre. Prior to the release of the album, he stated that he would show a ‘new side’ of himself – something personal for his long-time fans, like myself.

Why Van Gogh?

Suho was on a trip in Switzerland when he first saw Van Gogh’s paintings. He then travelled to Paris to visit the neighbourhood the artist inhabited (Montmartre) and to see more of his artwork, and found that his favourites were Van Gogh’s Self Portraits. Suho uses them as a medium to reinvent and repaint himself, to show his true personality – much different from Van Gogh’s presentation of himself.

Self-Portrait, 1887, Paris

The Dutch painter’s Self-Portrait (1887) shows his best side, rather than his real side, similar to a head shot one would take when creating a LinkedIn account. He dresses himself in a decent suit to fulfil the desire to ‘memorialise’ his appearance, as well as commemorate the self-portraiture trend in the 19th century. There is great detail in his face, as opposed to the pointillist technique used in the rest of the painting. This could have been a way to bring more attention to his serious visage almost coming out of the frame.

The album consists of six songs, that range from modern rock to ballads, and feature its title track, “Let’s Love.” It is a song about loving someone unconditionally, through all difficulties and obstacles. It reflects the hardships faced by both Suho and his fans over the last eight years, since his official debut with EXO in 2012. ‘Even if I can’t reach you / I want to catch you’ – these lines speak out to me the most, as there is a feeling of safety and warmth within them; something we all need in these unprecedented times.

Starry Night
Starry Night, 1889, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence

“Starry Night,” the fourth track, is a personal favourite, as it brings a different light to its namesake. Van Gogh painted it during his lows in 1889, while staying in an asylum. The painting has a dreamlike quality to it, which, I believe, might reflect his fantasies of wanting to escape his thoughts, to a village created from his imagination. The bright colours against the sky’s dark brushes remind me of a saying in the Harry Potter series: ‘Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times.’ It is said that there are religious connotations to the painting, which could have been his way of reaching out to God, and asking for guidance in a difficult time. It brings out an image of both suffering and comfort, as he metamorphoses his pain into a glimmer of hope and ease.

Conversely, Suho focuses on the feelings of sadness and the dark tones of the painting, as he describes the pain from his break-ups. The stars represent happy memories of the relationship, but they fade away quickly into the darkness. ‘The songs that we whispered / Shines brightly from afar’, there is a sense of nostalgia that we try to hold onto but we have to let it go in order to move on.

Despite the overwhelming amount of love songs in the album, its concept is unique and refreshing. It incorporates post-impressionist European art into modern Asian music. Suho helps consolidate Van Gogh’s presence in today’s culture, where younger generations may not be familiar with the influential artist. He sheds a new light on how we can interpret Van Gogh’s art.

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