Art: Nightmare Alley

There were microphones, movie cameras and diplomats. And there were speeches by Venezuela's visiting President Romulo Gallegos and Foreign Minister Andres Blanco. It seemed more like an ambassador's tea than an art exhibition. But the paintings—hung by the Library of Congress as a gesture of inter-American good, will—spoke anything but the language of diplomacy. The work of a brooding, hollow-cheeked man named Héctor Poleo, they were fierce and fearful as a prophecy of doom.

Héctor Poleo seems much too young and much too miserable to be Venezuela's best-known artist. He has been miserable most of his life, and looks old before his...

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