Archive Dive: Anton Prinner

Archivist Kirstie Meehan takes an "Archive Dive" into the life and works of the Hungarian painter, engraver and sculptor, Anton Prinner (1902-1983). Examples of Prinner's work are currently on display in New Arrivals | From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville.

If you strolled past the café La Coupole in Paris in the 1940s, you might have noticed a small figure, tucking into a hamburger and animatedly talking in Hungarian with a group of friends. Anton Prinner – (born Anna Prinner in 1902, Budapest) had arrived in Paris in 1928 to practice as an artist. Adopting a masculine name and clothing, he was experimental and eclectic in his endeavours: though known primarily as a sculptor and printmaker, he also worked as a painter, muralist, draftsman and ceramicist. He moved in the centre of the Parisian avant-garde in the interwar years, becoming good friends with Picasso – who addressed him as ‘Monsieur Madame’ - and socialising with figures including André Breton, the founder of Surrealism. But he died in obscurity in Paris in 1983, impoverished and little-known outside of artistic circles.

If you wander around New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) you’ll find two books by Prinner, nestled together in a display case. These are recent additions to our Archive and Special Books collection, a treasure-trove of correspondence, photographs, sketchbooks and publications representing the history of twentieth and twenty-first century European art. We are constantly adding to our collection – by gift, purchase and bequest – and Prinner’s books are two of our more recent acquisitions.

The smaller of the two books on display, La Femme tondue (‘The Shaven-Headed Woman’) was published just after the Second World War in 1946. It takes as its subject matter the public humiliations experienced by French women who were considered to have collaborated with the German forces. Prinner’s text and etchings mirror in tone the brutality of these very public assaults, when women were paraded through the streets and their heads shaved. Prinner remained in German-occupied Paris throughout the war, and likely witnessed these events.

The larger publication, Le Livre des morts des Anciens Egyptiens (‘The Book of the Dead of the Ancient Egyptians’) references the magic spells that the Egyptians cast to accompany the deceased on their way to the afterlife. Its sixty-six engraved plates feature the androgynous figures who populate much of his work; the overall effect is mesmerising, beautiful and unsettling. We purchased this book only a few weeks ago and added it to New Arrivals just in time!

But why acquire Prinner’s work, and why now? His story spans the personal to the political: from his lived experience as a transgender artist to the wider story of artists’ lives in the tumultuous context of twentieth-century Europe. We want to diversify the stories we tell in the gallery, expanding beyond the traditional art historical canon: acquiring work by Prinner and by other gender non-conforming artists like Toyen and Claude Cahun is an attempt to, if modestly, correct some of the biases that are institutionally entrenched in galleries, museums and archives. We can construct a new, more inclusive and frankly more interesting history of art by doing so.

Come along to New Arrivals to see Prinner’s work in-person. Our Archive is also open to the public – please get in touch (via [email protected]) if you’d like to see anything else in our collection up close.

6 December 2021