The Canadian War Museum is launching its commemoration of the centenary of the First World War with two art exhibitions, which it hopes can help people reflect on what the conflict meant for those who experienced it, even though the combatants are no longer living.

The first art exhibition, Witness, draws on the museum's large Beaverbrook collection, which contains 2,500 pieces by official war artists hired to document the war effort overseas and on the home front.

Some artworks have not been displayed in decades such as a large, long canvas by Charles Simpson of lumbermen cutting spruce trees in B.C. for the production of aircraft. The painting was last displayed in 1926.

More than a dozen works of art done privately by Canadian soldiers are also on display for the first time. 

"It takes us back to that time," said the museum's art historian Laura Brandon. "The point of the official art, and the point of the private art, was to share an experience. There's no one alive with whom we can share that experience directly today."

The second exhibition, Transformations, traces the art of two renowned artists who fought on different sides of the conflict: Canada's A.Y. Jackson and Germany's Otto Dix.

"We knew they had both experienced in the trenches, at the front, what it was they were depicting," said Brandon. "So, we could look across no-man's land, so to speak, and see what happened to them before the war, during the war, and after the war."

Paintings by Jackson's Group of Seven colleagues Arthur Lismer, Frederick Varley and Lawren Harris are also on display.​

Brandon pointed out how Jackson's post-war paintings of Northern Ontario landscapes as a member of the Group of Seven refer to his experience on the front: rolling trench-like hills with broken and twisted trees, which she said are symbolic of the loss of life during the war.

The landscape paintings by Otto Dix, meanwhile, are the largest collection ever assembled in North America. Brandon said they are not simply bucolic landscapes, as Dix used looming storm clouds as a way to subtly criticize the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.

Both exhibitions — Transformations and Witness — will be on display at the Canadian War Museum until Sept. 21, 2014. As the centenary of the 1914-1918 war continues, the War Museum will also present other exhibitions tied to specific events, such as a look at the battle of Vimy Ridge in 2017.