Great works: D'-JIA-VU? (The Stock Market)1937

The art of trompe l'oeil mystifies, amuses and beguiles in just about equal measure. Its very self-consciousness pushes the illusionism of painting to comic extremes. Some of the finest works of trompe l'oeil were produced by the Dutch in the 17th century. They were especially fond of showing us pendent game birds that looked ripe for plucking off the wall and plunging into the steaming pot.

The weirdly anachronistic masterpiece on this page is an oddity in all kinds of ways. Little is known about the artist other than that he was born in Dresden in about 1885, emigrated to the USA, trained as an engineer and, late in life, emigrated to East Germany at the height of the Cold War. His art was a private affair. He sold just two paintings during his lifetime. Otis Kaye was not in fact his real name. No one knows what that was. Kaye was obsessed by the subject of money, as many other American painters had been in the 19th century – the greenback had helped to give groundedness and cohesiveness to that relatively young nation – and this painting is a kind of mysterious autobiographical journey, a portrait of one man's financial pain.

And yet, looked at in another way, it is not mysterious at all. It is perfectly evident what the sum of its parts consists in – dollar bills, government bonds and other financial paraphernalia all tacked to, or propped against, what looks like a handsome chest of three wooden drawers. Everything is painted with such meticulous detail that we feel we could snatch one of these bills out of its sequence, or even gratefully accept that cigarette which is sticking out at such a curious angle from the tin of Bond Street Pipe Tobacco. But there is much, much more to it than this. In fact, this is a seemingly matter-of-fact painting which we could happily ponder for days at a time, and still not get to the bottom of its mysteries.

The date of the painting's making is significant: 1937. That date relates directly to the painting's odd title. Why is déjà vu spelled in this truncated way though? Kaye is drawing our attention to movements of the Dow Jones Industrial Average – DJIA – over a period of almost a decade, and if you look very carefully you will see those words spelled out directly above the painting's title, which is at the very right hand end of this strange rising and falling of American currency.

This trajectory – which is half way between an over-ambitious V and a truncated W – shows the progress of the DJIA between 1929 and 1937, a period of heady rises and terrible falls. What is more, the long downturn in the market may not yet be over. It breaks off as it is still plunging.

Every detail looks snatchable or peel-off-able. And yet even its particular brand of extreme illusionism is somewhat illusory. How are these bills attached to these drawers? Some of them are held in position by threads secured by screws. Others appear to hang suspended in the air. Remember what happened as a child when you rubbed a balloon on your elbow and attached it to the wall? Some kind of miracle seems to be happening to some of these objects. They are being held in position by nothing. That which holds money secure is itself illusory – in short, this seems to be a statement about the nature of money. And then there are the drawers themselves, the way they are bevelled, the way they seem to be underscored by shadow. Are they not bevelled in ways which seem to run counter to each other? We see both above the bottom drawer and below it (but only on the right) – that is surely an impossibility, a trick. It simply could not happen. Or could it? And are they really projecting outwards? Why then does the bottom frame of this piece of furniture appear to be set in front of these drawers? And if they are indeed drawers, where are the handles that we would need if we were to pull them out? And where is the keyhole for that key which hangs, oddly suspended, in the centre of the painting? Is that silver coin concealing the keyhole? And then there is the matter of Otis Kaye's own initials, OK. How many times can you find those initials in this painting? Look at the extreme top left and top right. There they are all right, simulating a bit of ornamentation. But can we really be sure that OK means Otis Kaye? Perhaps he is merely reassuring us that things will be OK after all in this world of financial turmoil.

And what is the meaning of that thread which appears to hang from the nib of the fountain pen? And are we to take comfort in that tiny New Deal badge which is so close to the hazardousness of that riffle of playing cards? Or will tomorrow's newspapers repeat what the press cutting says which peers out so coyly from behind that majestic 500-dollar bill: STOCK CRASH?

ABOUT THE ARTIST Otis Kaye (1885?-1974) began to paint currency in 1917. His work appears in part to be an anachronistic throwback to other great American trompe-l'oeil painters of the 19th century, but Kaye injects into his work a 20th-century mood of urgency and anxiety.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture