WHEN LIU GUOSONG started to give Chinese painting a modern twist more than 50 years ago, Taiwan's art traditionalists vilified him as a rebel and a traitor. Today, with his 73 years etched in grey-white hair, wrinkled eyes and a gentle paunch, Liu looks more like a jolly grandfather than a rebel rouser. Yet his life and works, spanning a distinguished 50-year career, has been all about pushing boundaries. Liu, whose distinctive works are an abstract blend of eastern and western styles, is internationally lauded as the father of the modern Chinese art movement. A large-scale retrospective of his works will be showing at the Hong Kong Museum of Art until May 2. The son of a soldier and a housewife, Liu had no early training in art. Japanese forces killed his father when he was one and, like many mainland Chinese during the second world war, Liu's family were constantly running for their lives. Liu never stayed long enough in one place to receive formal education until he was in his teens. 'My deepest wish was a chance to study and help my family.' At 14, Liu was given a place at the Kuomintang-funded school for orphans of revolutionary soldiers. To pursue his dream of studying, he later left with his school to Taiwan. His mother remained in communist China. The family lost touch for several years. From the beginning, Liu loved art. He describes how he would spend hours browsing a Chinese painting shop after school. The owner finally asked him if he wanted to learn to paint and recommended an art teacher. Liu could not afford art materials, let alone fees. So the shop owner gave him some leftover paper, ink and brushes, and the teacher gave him two Chinese art print books. Liu spent entire summer holidays practising, closely following the strokes in the books. The only teaching he got was a patient critique of his work by the master painter. Watercolour painting was the norm in secondary school; but as Liu was gifted in Chinese bimo, or ink-brush painting, his art teacher encouraged him to submit ink-brush entries for the school's art exhibition. The young student's works stood out and won so much admiration that they were framed and hung throughout the school. 'I decided then I would be an artist,' says Liu. Another teacher, noting his gift and passion for art, encouraged him to skip the final year and apply straight for university. His outstanding portfolio became his ticket into the fine arts department of Taiwan Normal University. There, he was formally introduced to western art forms and styles. He experimented in western techniques, but hit a creative impasse. 'I wanted my works to express my innermost feelings. I couldn't achieve this by just using one technique - Chinese or western. Finally, I asked myself: 'Why must I strictly follow one or the other? Let's break this rigid mindset towards art.'' He began formulating his philosophy to modernise Chinese traditional painting and overturn what he calls 'the tyranny of the brush'. He started to develop a kind of Chinese art that used new materials and techniques, and which was more relevant to real life. In the 1950s, this was unheard of, and Liu was ostracised by art circles in Taiwan as a result. 'Purists were shocked [that] I dared to challenge the old conventions of ink painting. They came after my neck,' he says. At Taiwan's Chung-yuan University, he was confined to teaching architecture students, rather than fine arts students. But Liu persevered. He wrote seminal essays pushing for the renaissance of modern Chinese art. He experimented with using Chinese ink with colour, and acrylic on paper, not canvas. He applied multiple techniques such as collage, reverse print and folding. By 1963, he had invented a new type of material to add texture to his art. It was so innovative it was called 'Liu Guosong paper'. 'Chinese ink only shows black lines, not white ones. The standard paper restricted my art, because it couldn't show the white etchings I needed for my painting. So I invented my own,' he says. 'Sticking to stagnant traditions limits growth. It's a dead end for creativity.' From the mid-60s to the mid- 80s, Liu worked in Hong Kong, where he did some of his most important work. In 1969, he created pieces inspired by the first moon landing. 'Art must reflect life. It was such a feat, it had to be reflected in art.' The result was his signature Space Series, which launched him to international art stardom. Abstract art was popular in America after the second world war because it represented the pursuit of individuality, and his abstract treatments became a hit. In the 80s, his influence swept China. Mainlanders were awed by his work. 'They asked: 'Could Chinese painting really be done this way?'' says Liu. Many were inspired by his modern treatment, the antithesis of the conservative art they were used to. This led to an extensive exhibition that travelled to 18 destinations throughout the mainland over three years, sparking a wave of experimental ink art there. It was only after winning acclaim overseas, however, that Liu's work was viewed with greater respect in Taiwan. Liu regards artists as cultural scientists, who must constantly research, experiment and reinvent their work. 'I tell all my students: you must have independent ideas. Develop your own voice. If you follow the fashion of the time, you become obsolete very fast. With original style, you can stand on your own and engage any other technique or artist out there.' He paints multiple pieces at any one time. He hangs them up to examine them more closely, while drinking copious amounts of tea. 'This self-analysis is crucial to breaking new ground,' he says. Liu recounts his reaction when someone pointed out that mountain-river landscapes recurred in his abstract art - something he didn't realise himself. 'I didn't believe it at first. I even took special care to avoid drawing it that way. But when I re-examined my work, I realised that they were right. Mountains and rivers kept manifesting because these were landscapes close to my heart. I adore climbing. I love the mountains. My art and life are connected.' Each of his major series - the Snowy Mountain, Space, Marble, Tibet and Jiu- zhaigou - is a reflection of this philosophy of the link between an artist's life and work. His largest piece, called Source, is a vision of a cascading waterfall set in a mystic mountain landscape. The masterpiece, composed of 42 works, measures more than 19.5 metres by 3.6 metres, and straddles six floors of the Island Shangri-La hotel in Admiralty. It took Liu three months to complete. Even after 60 years of painting, Liu is never short of artistic challenges. 'I strive for renewal by opposing preconceived notions of what the end result must be. 'Art should be like chess, moving one step at a time. The pieces advance gradually but purposefully.' The identifying mark on all of Liu's paintings is a stamp that describes him as 'an east-west north-south man'. Born in the north of China, raised in the south, and having blended east and west in his art, it is an apt signature for a man of art, reflecting life in this universe. Liu Guosong - A Universe of His Own. Hong Kong Museum of Art, 10 Salisbury Rd, TST. Tel: 2734 215. Daily (except Thu), 10am-6pm. Ends May 2.