The East Asian art historian Prof. Dr. Helmut Brinker was a member of the URPP Asia and Europe since its beginning in 2006. On 9 July 2012, he died unexpectedly at the age of 72.
Helmut Brinker was born in Lübbeke (Westphalia, Germany) on 17 August 1939. He studied German literature, art history, and archeology at the University of Heidelberg. A lecture on East Asian ink painting by the art historian Dietrich Seckel (1910–1997) incited his sustained interest in the artistic and aesthetic traditions of China and Japan. In 1973, he published his dissertation on Zen-Buddhist portraiture from its beginnings to the end of the 16th century. A Harkness Fellowship (1966–68) enabled him to enroll at Harvard and Princeton. Brinker’s fascination with portrait art – an interest he shared with his supervisor, mentor, and close friend Dietrich Seckel – was in no way his only area of expertise. To the contrary, he covered the full spectrum of the rich field of East Asian art history, offering lectures on Korean literati painting as well as on Buddhist art from China and Japan.
Following the completion of his dissertation, Helmut Brinker began working as curator for East Asian art at the Rietberg Museum, Zurich. He designed numerous exhibitions for the museum, such as Gold in the Art of East Asia; Bronzes from China; Brush and Ink; Art Treasures from China; Chinese Cloisonné: The Pierre Uldry Collection; and Zen: Masters of Meditation in Images and Writings.
Helmut Brinker was a masterful conveyor of East Asian art history. His remarkable expertise is evident not only in the long and substantial list of his publications and of the exhibitions he realized as a curator, but also in the range of his teaching at the University of Zurich. Beginning as a lecturer at the Art History Institute, he became a private lecturer in 1975 and, three years later, was appointed as an associate professor. In 1982, he became full professor.
The fortunate proximity to the Rietberg Museum turned out to be extremely productive. Helmut Brinker was convinced that art is studied best in direct experience and the Rietberg Museum had plenty of original artifacts to offer. Therefore, his lectures usually took place in the museum’s exhibition rooms and permanent galleries.
In 2006, Helmut Brinker retired as an emeritus professor, but he continued to work on numerous hitherto neglected projects. Furthermore, he wrote a concise introduction to Chinese art (C.H. Beck) as well as – surprisingly to many people – a cultural history of football in China. Yet, for all who knew stories from the right time, such as where he played for the Lübbeke football club or won the city of Zurich’s tennis championship (single and double) in 1972, this interest in sports was hardly surprising. Additionally, Helmut Brinker found extra time to apply himself to his moxi (ink games). He shared his most beautiful works with his wife, the Germanist Claudia Brinker-von der Heyde, and with his friends.
With the death of Helmut Brinker, both the University of Zurich and the discipline of East Asian art history have lost one of their most eminent representatives. In addition to his professional connoisseurship, many of us will remember Helmut Brinker as a very warm-hearted and friendly colleague.
A longer version of this article including a list of Helmut Brinker’s publications and exhibitions is published in Asiatische Studien, 4/2012.
(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 2/2013, p. 10)