''For me,'' wrote Fernand Leger, ''the human body is no more important than keys or velocipedes. . . . As long as the human body is considered a sentimental or expressive value in painting, no new evolution in pictures of people will be possible.'' Leger, born in 1881, belonged to the generation of painters for whom abstraction was a liberating formal adventure. His art was never completely abstract, but from experimenting with abstraction he learned a new attitude toward traditional pictorial subjects, a way of seeing them as autonomous formal realities, no longer subordinated to anecdotal or expressive purposes.

We can see this attitude reflected in the late drawing, ''Face and Hands,'' reproduced here. In a more traditional drawing, it would be apparent, as it is not here, that the hands and face depicted belong to the same body. In Leger's drawing we can be sure only that these elements belong to the same design, for hands and face appear to be quite detached from each other. Cover the open eye, and the whole drawing seems to become an almost abstract decorative design, so powerful are the formal rhythms and energies of the image. For Leger, the pictorial subject was a way of setting those decorative values free so they could be enjoyed for their own sake.

Also implicit in his views of art is the notion that only a more formalistic treatment of the human figure could keep painting (and drawing) abreast of the changes the modern world was making in people. Like many other French artists of his generation, Leger had a direct and harrowing experience of World War I. He served as a ''sapper,'' his function being to tunnel under enemy lines from trenches on the French side of the battlefield. The destruction he saw in the war affirmed his view of the modern world as a nexus of leveling forces that abolished old hierarchies, and rendered everyone more or less equal - or equivalent - to everyone else. From such a viewpoint, all the individualistic and heroic values projected onto human figures in painting of the past could only appear ''sentimental.''

In place of those values, Leger proposed a vision of human beings as objective components of a world of things. In doing this, he seems to have understood his contribution as an artist to be that of redressing the excessive emphasis on ''subjective'' values. These he saw lying ultimately behind the breakdown of the old order of society. Like other modernist painters of his time , Leger understood World War I as the culmination of European society's commitment to false and hypocritical values. Through his art, he tried to supplant those values with a detached vision which reconciles subject and object , figure and abstract form, in a metaphoric, harmonious wholeness.

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