The Art Nouveau Hunter’s Guide to Brussels

In the latter part of the 19th century, a total war began; a new-art blitzkrieg that would burn bright across Europe and beyond for a too-brief two decades.

With  architecture, interior and graphic design, lighting, furniture, jewellery and even household utensils as legitimate creative targets of this all-out creative campaign, the florid innovators made art their way of life. As these impassioned provocateurs spread their violent, whip-crack curves and scandalously rhythmic undulating lines across everything from the grandest of buildings to the most delicate silver spoonery, they transformed their world and created their mouvement du siècle: Art Nouveau.

a seismic influence on the creative industries and personalities of the following centuries

As a reaction to the strict formality and overwhelming influence of the European Academies of Art and the looming, gross heaviness of Victorian conformity, the Art Nouveau movement – or, better yet, the Art Nouveau philosophy – may have only lasted for a short period of time, but a seismic influence on the creative industries and personalities of the following centuries can still be felt, while the indelible sinuous lines and foliate forms themselves remain baked into the very fabric of Europe; perhaps nowhere more indelibly so than in Brussels.

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And it is to the de-facto capital of Europe that photographer Alan Ainsworth and author Alec Forshaw reunite, coming together to create the definitive guide to a city where an unbeatable combination of socio-economic and political circumstance (alongside the limp, loosened pockets of some delightfully enlightened patrons) created an unparalleled Art Nouveau playground for artists of flamboyant talent to give form to their sonorous vision.

explorers will find themselves suitably primed and ready to explore the embarrassment of riches Brussels has to offer

With Forshaw in the midst of his fifth decade working on the conservation of the historic built environment and already a frequent visitor to Belgium, reuniting with Ainsworth on the heels of their 2013 collaboration New City: Contemporary Architecture in the City of London was an obvious choice, one played out masterfully in their latest work.

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With a concise, detailed introduction giving a rich overview of the movement alongside its historical context and the unique interplay of artists and architects that transformed the city, even the most nascent of Art Nouveau explorers will find themselves suitably primed and ready to explore the embarrassment of riches Brussels has to offer.

Divvied up into eleven chapters each covering a neat area of the city, every inch of the book bursts with Ainsworth’s vibrant images, shouldering as he does an ever-more extensive back catalogue of architectural and urban photography.

a treat of a book that will no doubt inform trips to Brussels for years to come

Fittingly for a guidebook (even a paunchy, coffee-table leaning one like this) the images are crisp with a clean documentarian air, enlivened throughout by crash-zooms into playful architectural detail; garnished ceramic tiles, menageries of ornamental plant work and creatures, curved forms, and a baroque, mannered asymmetry undercut the pomp of the buildings, making them – and the book itself – relatable and invigoratingly accessible.

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Forshaw’s rich, studious descriptions embrace the images, his prose punctuated with numerals cross-referencing both the images and neat minimalist maps giving an overview of each area of interest. Holding the hand of the reader throughout deep dives into architectural detail, political machinations and personal histories, Forshaw covers doorknobs to despots and everything in-between, scattering delights across every shiny page.

Leaving both expert readers assured and new Art Nouveau explorers enthused, Brussels Art Nouveau aims deep and swims wide; a treat of a book that will no doubt inform trips to Brussels for years to come, this lavish and morish piece of work wets the appetite for wherever Ainsworth and Forshaw’s interests lead them next.

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Photos: Alan Ainsworth

Advance copy of Brussels Art Nouveau for review courtesy of Unicorn Publishing