Painting Schools and Art-Names (Go)


Japanese artists have "art-names" (go in Japanese), a pseudonym, or pen-name used by an 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 1798-1806 alone used no less than six!

Art-Names and Schools

An 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 (1735-1814) had a student named Toyohiro (1773-1828), 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 (1866-1908).

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 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 note. 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 art-name 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.

The Utagawa School and Inherited Art-Names

In the main Utagawa school of woodblock artists, there was eventually a whole series of these go, from most senior to junior. As each senior person died, the rest would all move up a step!

The head of the school generally used the go (and signed his prints) as "Toyokuni"; after Kunisada I took over as head of the school (in 1842 or so), he started signing as "Toyokuni", and the next most senior member, Kochoro, started signing as "Kunisada" (Kunisada II, in this case).

The next most senior member after him, in turn, began signing as "Kunimasa" (Kunimasa IV, in this case), which had been Kochoro's go before he became Kunisada II. (The original Kunimasa I (1773-1810) had been a student of Toyokuni I)

Here is a list of some members of the main Utagawa school, giving the succession of names used by some of them, along with the modern numbering of each:

The Two Different Toyokuni "II"s

One final additional complexity is caused by the fact that there are two different artists who are sometimes referred to as "Toyokuni II".

The first Toyokuni II was Toyoshige (1777-1836), a competent pupil and son-in-law of Toyokuni I, who had taken over as head of the Utagawa school after Toyokuni I died.

Kunisada I (Toyokuni III) reportedly despised Toyoshige, and refused to acknowledge him as head of the Utagawa school. Apparently, this was because he felt that as the best pupil, he should have been named head after the old master died, and was upset with Toyoshige, who apparently got the position because of his family connection.

When Kunisada I took over the art-name Toyokuni (in about 1842), he "removed" Toyokuni II from house history, and for a period actually signed as "Toyokuni II". Everyone now numbers him Toyokuni III, however. So one needs to be careful, as there are prints which are signed "Toyokuni II" but which are actually by the artist we now call Toyokuni III.

This numbering persisted, so when Kochoro became head of the Utagawa school, he signed as "Toyokuni III", although by our counting he's Toyokuni IV; and likewise Kochoro II eventually signed as "Toyokuni IV", when we number him as Toyokuni V. Again, something one needs to keep an eye out for.

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