“Each piece is like an individual human with its own needs—where it grew up, when it’s from, where it was made and what type of fabric,” Florence Half-Wrobel says, examining the Picasso paintings placed face up on conjoined tables. “It’s important to see that there are no losses and lifting of paint.”
The art conservator from France is standing in the main dining room of Bellagio’s Picasso restaurant, sun pouring through the French doors that open to the 8-acre lake and fountain show on the Strip. With the restaurant temporarily closed and the furniture moved aside, she cleans and conditions rare works most people wouldn’t dare to touch, an esteemed practitioner in a specialized field. “I appreciate being a doctor,” she says, “a surgeon of art.”
Having worked in art conservation for three decades, including more than 20 years attending to Picasso pieces owned by the artist’s family, Half-Wrobel is in familiar territory here, though the environment—an award-winning Vegas restaurant facing the Eiffel Tower and other replica landmarks of home—is a first, an adventure she says she appreciates. She adds that the workshop couldn’t be more elegant.
Wearing a white lab coat over a stylish black-and-white dress, she explains the state of Picasso’s “Seated Man,” painted in the artist’s final years and now watching over the dining area: “Cracks are inevitable depending on how it dries over the first layer and how it has been transported. It depends also on the color of the paint and the application process.”
The more than 20 works were purchased for the restaurant when it opened in 1998 and now belong to the MGM Resorts fine art collection at Bellagio. Some sit behind glass, including Picasso’s 1938 “Woman With Beret,” which was featured in a figurative exhibit at Bellagio’s Gallery of Fine Art. The intent is to place other works in the restaurant behind glass early next year, says Tarissa Tiberti, executive director of the gallery, who asked Half-Wrobel to conserve the art in Picasso after the two met while Half-Wrobel was in town as a registrar and courier for the Bellagio’s Picasso: Creatures and Creativity exhibition.
“We are continually reviewing and conditioning all artworks in the collection,” Tiberti says. “It is our responsibility to make sure the integrity of the artwork and the artist intent is always looked after.”
The opportunity is a welcome one for Half-Wrobel, who’s fascinated by Picasso’s different techniques and had not seen these particular works. There’s also the sunlit environment carpeted with a design by the artist’s son, Claude Ruiz Picasso. She prefers to work on-site, rather than in her Paris studio. Even the journey from Picasso to the Bellagio’s shop puts the paintings at risk—thus the dining-room workspace. The restaurant also houses plants, whose bacteria can affect artworks, another element for Half-Wrobel to consider.
A nearby cart holds brushes, pigments, a headband magnifier, a dry cleaning sponge and a small bottle of ammonium citrate, tools used to treat small losses and remove stains and drips. Never does she create on top of the original. Mostly, she says, she cleans the works, balancing on the fine line of conservation, where you don’t want to touch too much but must protect against vulnerability.
She types reports into her iPad, notes filed into the paintings’ histories, an ongoing provenance recording the lives of precious works in a town noted for celebrating its knockoffs with great fanfare. Appreciating the contrast, she says, “Everything is fake, but the paintings are real.”