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An art-name (in Japanese, go) is a pseudonym, or pen-name, used by an Japanese artist, which they sometimes change.

In some cases, artists adopted different go at different stages of their career, usually to mark significant changes in their life. One of the most extreme examples of this is Hokusai, who in the period 1798 to 1806 alone used no less than six!

Art-Names and Schools

An woodblock print artist's first go is usually given to them by the head of the school (a group of artists and apprentices, with a senior as master of the school) in which they initially studied; this go usually includes one of the syllables of the master's go.

One can often track the relationship among artists with this, especially in later years, when it seems to have been fairly (although not uniformly) systematic that the first syllable of the pupil's go was the last syllable of the master's go.

Thus, an artist named Toyoharu had a student named Toyohiro, who, in turn, had as a pupil the famous landscape artist Hiroshige.

Another person who studied under Toyoharu was the principal head of the Utagawa school, Toyokuni. Toyokuni had pupils named Kunisada and Kuniyoshi. Kuniyoshi, in turn, had as a student Yoshtoshi, whose pupils included Toshikata.

Inherited and Re-used Art-Names

In some schools, in particular the main Utagawa school, the go of the most senior member was adopted by his chief pupil when the master died, and the chief pupil took over as head of the school. In addition, perhaps as a sign of respect, sometimes later artists took the go of some much older (and dead) artist.

This obviously can make attribution rather difficult - two prints signed with a particular go may in fact be by totally different people! Given a print signed with a go used by a number of different people who signed with that name, it can sometime be a bit difficult to be certain which one did that print.

One has to use a number of different clues to figure out which one it actually is. One good one is to use the censor seal to determine the date of a print, which will generally allow one to determine definitively which artist is involved.

With particular artists, there are a number of other techniques one can use, the detail of which is beyond the scope of this article. One can use the general style of a print to differentiate among earlier and later artists, for instance. Others may have specific clues allowing one to determine which artist is involved.

For example, Kunisada (once he had changed his go to Toyokuni) made a habit of signing his prints with his signature inside an elongated oval version of the toshidama (literally, 'New Year's Jewel') seal of the Utagawa school, an unusual cartouche with the zig-zag in the upper right-hand corner. His successors continued this practise. Any print signed in this manner is therefore not by one of the earlier users of that name.

In general, in modern writing, the style is to identify the particular artist one is speaking of by use of a Roman numeral to identify the artist's number within the sequence of artists using a particular go. Thus, Kunisada I (for he had pupils who in turn used his go) is also known as Toyokuni III, since he was the third artist to sign with that go.