His early work consists mainly of hyper-realistic watercolors, depicting wounded children, as well as performances - often with children - in public spaces. Helnwein is concerned primarily with psychological and sociological anxiety, historical issues and political topics. As a result of this, his work is often considered provocative and controversial.
Viennese-born Helnwein is part of a tradition going back to the 18th century, to which
Messerschmidt's grimacing sculptures belong. One sees, too, the common ground of his works with those of Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, two other Viennese, who display their own bodies in the frame of reference of injury, pain, and death. One can also see this fascination for body language goes back to the expressive gesture in the work of
A clarity of vision in his subject matter was emerging in Helnwein's art that was to stay consistent throughout his career. His subject matter is the human condition. The metaphor for his art, although it included self-portraits, is dominated by the image of the child, but not the carefree innocent child of popular imagination. Helnwein instead created the profoundly disturbing yet compellingly provocative image of the wounded child. The child scarred physically and the child scarred emotionally from within.
In 2004, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco organized the first one-person exhibition of Gottfried Helnwein at an American Museum: "The Child, works by Gottfried Helnwein" at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. The show was seen by almost 130,000 visitors and the San Francisco Chronicle quoted it the most important exhibition of a contemporary artist in 2004. Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic, wrote: "Helnwein's large format, photo-realist images of children of various demeanors boldly probed the subconscious. Innocence, sexuality, victimization and haunting self-possession surge and flicker in Helnwein's unnerving work".
Harry S. Parker III, Director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco explained what makes Helnwein's art significant: "For Helnwein, the child is the symbol of innocence, but also of innocence betrayed. In today's world, the malevolent forces of war, poverty, and sexual exploitation and the numbing, predatory influence of modern media assault the virtue of children. Robert Flynn Johnson, the curator in charge, has assembled a thought-provoking selection of Helnwein's works and provided an insightful essay on his art. Helnwein's work concerning the child includes paintings, drawings, and photographs, and it ranges from subtle inscrutability to scenes of stark brutality. Of course, brutal scenes—witness The Massacre of the Innocents—have been important and regularly visited motifs in the history of art. What makes Helnwein's art significant is its ability to make us reflect emotionally and intellectually on the very expressive subjects he chooses. Many people feel that museums should be a refuge in which to experience quiet beauty divorced from the coarseness of the world. This notion sells short the purposes of art, the function of museums, and the intellectual curiosity of the public. The Child: Works by Gottfried Helnwein will inspire and enlighten many; it is also sure to upset some. It is not only the right but the responsibility of the museum to present art that deals with important and sometimes controversial topics in our society".