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  • Helmut Brinker (1939–2012)
  • John Rosenfield

With the death of Helmut Brinker, our community of historians of East Asian art lost a vital talent. Helmut had transcended the barriers that separate the Japanese, Chinese, English, and German language spheres. He played a crucial role in the revival of German scholarship after World War II. His insights liberated the study of Buddhist art in Zen monasteries from the glib generalizations of the school of thought known as Zen-lite. His intellect dealt with the arcane doctrines of Buddhist philosophy as well as the intricacies of football in ancient China. Finally, for those of us lucky enough to work with him, Helmut was a gentle, witty, and generous friend.

Born in Lübbecke in the state of Westphalia, Germany, he trained in art history at Heidelberg University under Dietrich Seckel, his life long mentor and friend. Seckel had joined the exodus of German scholars during the calamitous 1930s and 1940s and was teaching language and literature in Tokyo when World War II began. Staying there ten years, he became ever more engrossed in Buddhist art, Buddhist philosophy, and in the study of East Asian portraiture. Seckel, who had not been trained as a conventional art historian, felt free to explore an unusual variety of topics: the layout of Japanese Confucian academies, for example, or Buddhist temple names.

Seckel’s surveys of Buddhist arts and Japanese narrative painting have been translated into eight languages and become classroom staples throughout the world. By contrast, his Jenseits des Bildes: Anikonische Symbolik in der buddhistichen Kunst, first published in 1976, was a highly specialized study which Brinker edited and published in English in 2004 under the title Before and Beyond the Image: Aniconic Symbolism in Buddhist Art (Artibus Asiae, Supplementum 45).

Helmut Brinker finished his doctorate at Heidelberg University with a dissertation on the portraiture of Zen monks, and he received a Harkness Fellowship from the Commonwealth Foundation, which enabled him to study for one year at Harvard and Princeton, to purchase a purple Chevrolet, and to explore museums and collections throughout the United States. In 1970 he began teaching at Heidelberg, but in the same year he accepted a dual position in Switzerland, half as curator in the Rietberg Museum in Zürich, half as teacher at Zürich University.

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Wearing his curatorial hat, Brinker helped to catalogue the Rietberg’s great holdings of Chinese and Japanese sculpture, but the range of his intellect went far beyond. He studied private collections, such as those of Pierre Uldry (cloisonné; metalwork) and Heinz Götze (ink paintings and calligraphy). He wrote on early Chinese archaeology (e.g., ritual bronzes, Shang white pottery). He and Roger Goepper, a senior colleague in Cologne, organized two spectacular loan exhibitions of early Chinese art—featuring newly excavated material—from the People’s Republic of China.

Wearing his professorial hat, Helmut completed his Habilitationschrift (the post-doctoral essay that was prerequisite for tenured appointments in Germanic universities). In it he pointed out that depictions of Śākyamuni emerging from his ascetic life in the mountains were singular expressions of Zen Buddhist doctrine. This highly [End Page 131] original and insightful essay was published in English as “Shussan Shaka in Sung and Yüan Painting,” Ars Orientalis 9 (1973): 21–40, and in German in 1983 as a book titled Shussan Shaka. Helmut also brought out an inexpensive paperback book Zen in the Art of Painting (German ed., 1985; English ed., 1987), which combined lyrical formal analyses of paintings with explanations of their philosophical and metaphysical origins. Helmut became widely recognized as an authoritative scholar of Zen and was appointed Ordinarius (full professor) at Zürich University.

Brinker’s gifts as curator-professor reached an apogee in 1993 when, with the collaboration of Kanazawa Hiroshi (former curator at the Kyoto National Museum) and the Japanese Cultural Affairs Agency, he organized a consummate exhibition of Zen Buddhist art and customs to be displayed in both Zürich and Kyoto. The catalogue, organized with his customary lucidity, reviewed the history and ideology of Zen, its major advocates, its Chinese roots, and its varied art forms, and it cast new...


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