Friday, November 03, 2006

Surviving Picasso

OCTOBER 17 - Of all the fabulous hotels on the strip, arguably the most stunning, impressive, and lavish one is the Bellagio. Opened in 1998, the Bellagio was the most expensive hotel built during its time, costing a staggering $1.7 billion. That same year, Nevada’s annual gaming revenue hit a landmark $8.1 billion and Las Vegas’ annual visitor count tops 30.6 million. The hotel is featured prominently in Steven Sodebergh’s remake of the 1960 Rat Pack movie Ocean’s Eleven. Andy Garcia’s character Terry Benedict shares some similarities with the creator of the Bellagio, Steve Wynn, and even spouts a line that references how one of the kidnappers of Wynn’s daughter was nabbed after he tried to purchase a Ferrari with the ransom money. Las Vegas is larger than life and the Bellagio is pure Las Vegas. It’s luxuriousness is stunning… from the beautiful lobby ceiling which is decorated with what appear to be glass flowers, to the indoor garden which is currently themed for Halloween, replete with enormous pumpkins, autumnal trees, and a goofy scarecrow. In a word, the Bellagio is enthralling.

The Bellagio is so awesomely impressive that it gave us, the TJs, some thought about where to spend our Chase Splurge opportunity. Chase Splurge is courtesy of the Chase Manhattan bank, who seem to have taken pity on our meager finances and have agreed to sponsor one activity of self-indulgence in each city that we visit. All the TJs have to collectively decide on what activity we would like do which we would otherwise be unable to experience on our $50 per diem allowance. I have to admit that a night’s stay at the Bellagio was a very tempting proposition, indeed. I’m not a big hotel person, though, so even though it was a nice thought to mull over, it wasn’t very compelling. Give me a comfortable bed and a clean bathroom, and I’m all set. That said, in order to truly experience Las Vegas, you must stay at one of the luxury hotels. Luxury hotels are Las Vegas just as Casinos and Elvis impersonators. If I had the money to burn for lavish accommodations, though, I would spend it at the Bellagio.

For Tim’s birthday, he was treated to a short cooking lesson with renowned Chef Julian Serrano of the Bellagio’s Picasso restaurant. One of the key features of the Bellagio is its extensive collection of art, even housing a gallery currently showing works by America’s great landscape documenter Ansel Adams. The Picasso restaurant is named thusly because it is decorated with genuine art from the Spanish genius. While Tim was enjoying his experience inside the kitchen, I marveled at the art inside the restaurant – again, shown in Ocean’s Eleven – which featured old and new works by Pablo Picasso. It was humbling. Chef Serrano estimated all the artwork in the restaurant to total somewhere between $80 to 90 million. It is arguably, per square meter, the most expensive place in the hotel. There is no need to go over how much of a genius Pablo Picasso was. As a student in art school, it impressed me how he could deconstruct everything… it was the visual equivalent of Rimbaud’s disordering of the senses, and it is awe-inspiring.

It is difficult to explain how truly inspired I was by the art. Seeing Picasso’s work in pictures is quite different from seeing it two inches away, being able to see the texture of the paint as it ripples from the surface of the painting, to see its colors in the way the sun teases it. To be in the presence of artwork that influenced generations of artists, that shaped the thinking of so many people is indescribable. A similar feeling has coursed through me in moments when I look at my grandfather’s artwork. It makes me somewhat embarrassed to have been cheating my way out of my legacy, not having painted or drawn consistently as was my birthright.

My grandfather was a remarkable painter. He never attained a status accorded to other Philippine National painters (in fact, he has yet to be accorded the distinction. But these nominations are complex and mysterious and deserve an entire article altogher.), but he was every bit as talented as, if not more than, his peers. The difference was that my grandfather was not a very socially deft man. Art is never simply about the genius in the work, it is also about the ability to connect with the viewers, or patrons, not just with the art but on a personal, face-to-face level. Vincent Van Gogh, a genius whose art has reduced me to tears, never made a good profit while he was alive. He was reputedly socially inept, which is never good for an artist. It’s the show. And Pablo Picasso, more than any other artist except perhaps Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, was The Show. Not to undermine his genius, of course, but Pablo Picasso was larger than life. He was not only one of the most recognizable artists of the 20th century, he was one of the most recognizable figures of his time. It seems only fitting that the Bellagio chose the Spaniard for its homage and theme.

There, in the Picasso, it struck me just how prosperous America is. A country so rich and powerful that it can afford to create a restaurant worth $90 million, to be able to provide important pieces of culture merely as ambiance for a dining experience is mind-boggling. This is America at its best, a nation that affords its people the luxuries of life in ways that people can only imagine and sometimes not even.

PS – Inspired a bit by all the Picasso I’ve taken in, I stopped by a nearby Walgreens and bought myself a $4.69 sketch pad. Coming off the $50 a day per diem that we have, that’s a bit of a luxury. The art that I’ll be putting on those pages probably won’t hit the $90 million mark but, hey, it’s a start, isn’t it?


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