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Willrich, Wolfgang

    Full Name: Willrich, Wolfgang

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1897

    Date Died: 1948

    Place Born: Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany

    Place Died: Göttingen, Lower Saxony, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): Entartete Kunst and National Socialism

    Career(s): art critics and artists (visual artists)


    Artist and art writer; organized Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition 1937. Willrich’s father, Hugo Willrich (1867-1950), was a professor of Hellenistic studies at the gymnasium in Göttingen. Willrich himself studied studio art in Berlin at the Kunsthochschule between 1915-16. Already strongly conservative because of his father’s traditional Prussian views, the younger Willrich resisted the new art styles being taught there. The first World Ward cut short his art training. Willrich served in the 251st infantry regiment in 1916 seeing action at the eastern front. He was captured and interned in a Orleans prisoner-of-war camp. In 1920 Willrich resumed his art studies, this time at the Academy in Dresden under Richard Mueller, Georg Luehring and the anatomist Hermann Dittrich. He studied at Dresden until 1924, when he made a tour of northern art cities. He moved to Berlin where the newly empowered Nazi government gave him a position in the Ministry of Culture. However, a former association with General Ludendorf cast dispersions on him and he was forced to leave the post. A chance encounter with the head of the state agricultural farms, R. Walther Daré gained him a commission portraying German peasants of Nordic physiognomy. He ironically he gained disfavor with local Nazi Party leaders over his conception of “Nordic”. He continued to document these “racial types” under the direction of the NSDP’s Chief racial anthropologist Walter Gross (1904-?). The Office of Racial Politics of the Nazi Party disseminated these as posters and post cards. Despite his affinity with the ideals of the Nazis, Willrich declined offers to join the party or be named an honorary SS member by Heinrich Himmler, fearing a loss of artistic autonomy. By this time, Willrich had become associated with Klaus Graf von Baudissin, who had taken over the Folkwang Museum in Essen after the dismissal of Karl Ernst Osthaus. Willrich began his book publication career by publishing in 1935 some collected drawings, titled Bauerntum als Heger deutschen Blutes (Peasantry as the Keeper of German Blood). The publisher was the Nazi house organ, “Blood and Soil” press. By the late 1930’s, Willrich’s conception of acceptable art was so narrow, that he considered degenerate any art other than that representing heroic verisimilitude. In 1937 Walter Hansen (b. 1934), Graf von Baudissin and Willrich assisted in organizing the now famous Munich exhibition known as Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst). Willrich’s own book on the subject, a scathing diatribe against modern art, called Säuberung des Kunsttempels (Cleansing of the Temples of Art) appeared at the same time. He generally considered the Nazi party too gentle on the “cultural bolshivism” of modern art, and brought on himself the antagonism of many Nazi officials, including Eberhard Hanfstaengl, the director of the Berlin Museum. In 1939 he published a book representing more of his drawings of racial “perfection,” titled Des edlen ewiges Reich (the Noble, Eternal of the Empire). In 1941 the National Socialist Cultural Authority presented an exhibition of his work called “Race and Nation”. Throughout the World War II, Willrich accompanied the German army and navy, sketching portraits (including Rommel) and submarine crews. In 1944 the Office of High Command for the Army assigned him to illustrate and write a book called “That’s Why the German Soldier Fought.” Germany’s defeat forced publication after the war in Buenos Aires in 1949. Much of his art was destroyed during and after the war. He was taken prisoner by American soliders in Göttingen where he had fled. Sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Normandy after the war, he sketched portraits of American soldiers to make some money. He returned to his family in Göttingen where died of cancer at age 51. Säuberung des Kunsttempels, more so in some respects than even Goebbels’ exhibition catalog for the Entartete Kunst exhibition, represents the Nazi vilification of modern art. Willrich approached modern art from the point of view of the artist, not the political theorist. Instead of making copious comparisons with famous works of German art from the renaissance, Willrich attacks abstraction on its own terms. “Modern” art to him lacked beauty and could be traced, according to Willrich, back to Communist ideas and African art, both of which he considered counter to the cannons of art.

    Selected Bibliography

    Säuberung des Kunsttempels: eine kunstpolitische Kampfschrift zur Gesundung deutscher Kunst im Geiste nordischer Art. Munich: J. F. Lehmann, 1937; Des Reiches Soldaten. Berlin: Verlag Grenze und Ausland, 1943; Des edlen ewiges Reich. Berlin: Verlag Grenze und Ausland, 1939; and Just, Oskar, illustrations. Daré, R. Walther. Nordisches Bludtserbe im süddeutschen Bauerntum. Munich: F. Bruckmann, 1938-39.


    “Wolfgang Willrich”; Hopfner, Wielant. “Wolfgang Willrich: Der Zeichner unserer Menschenart”; Mayer, Dietmar. “Die Seite für Willrich – Sammler!”; Davidson, Mortimer G. Kunst in Deutschland, 1933-1945: eine wissenschaftliche Enzyklopädie der Kunst im Dritten Reich. Tübingen: Grabert, 1988.


    "Willrich, Wolfgang." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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