A decisive aspect of Helnwein's art is that he does not show the causes of the terrible. The tortured children of his early years, the self portraits as victim, the staging of groups of person whose meaning remains enigmatic, the heads of the Poems and the free painterly designs of heads that appear damaged: all these pictures are part of an iconographic tradition in Western painting and refer to familiar types of pictures (portrait, group portrait, pictures of saints, vanitas motifs, etc)
At the same time they do not provide what usually makes pictures readable, namely an unambiguous interpretation in terms of the reality portrayed. These pictures lack the one story that can be narrated whose culmination they are. They can be recognised as being linked to photography and some of them resemble film stills - such as the Nacht/Night series created after 1989: in other words they remain indecisive in their relationship to a possible before and after. Helnwein never shows the act of violence as such. Instead he shows it results and its latent threatening existence. This distinguishes his oeuvre significantly from that of his frequently quoted "precursors" - from Hieronymus Bosch and @Francisco de Goya to Alfred Kubin, all of whom represent a surreal attitude.