Reality is broken. Everything seems bizarre, possibly nightmarish, and certainly dream-like.
Surrealism was a movement encompassing both literature and art, originating in Europe between the World Wars. The aim was to make art that reflected the fundamental truth about the world; they took the name surrealism (the prefix sur- means "super") because they considered themselves super-realists, the way earlier writers would consider themselves super-naturalists. To them modern cities and urban life had its own sense of the "uncanny" and "weird" as forests or dark woods would in fairy-tale landscapes. In this, they followed the influence of Sigmund Freud, whose psychoanalysis was the hottest fad of the decade, so the surrealists' super-realism was essentially art about the subconscious, as Freud envisioned it.
One major branch used very abstracted art to symbolically represent the subconscious. The other, better-known, branch attempted to more-or-less literally depict the strange logic of one's dreams—this was the surrealism of Salvador Dalí's melting clocks, René Magritte's flying men in bowler hats with apples on faces, and Elsa Schiaparelli's shoe hats and exotic lobster dresses.
Due to the popularity of the latter branch, the definition of "surrealism" drifted. People remembered the melty clocks, but forgot they came from the subconscious, so for those outside the movement, "surreal" became a synonym for "bizarre and nightmarish".
If the world looks mundane but Fridge Logic makes you wonder why people aren't making more of a fuss about some of the stuff going on then it's probably Magic Realism—which is actually a later offshoot of Dalí-style surrealism.
Compare Uncanny Valley and Eldritch Abomination. See also Surreal Horror and Surreal Humor. Compare and contrast Absurdism; both movements emerged in the wake of World War I and are stylistically similar, but whereas surrealism uses the bizarre to convey meaning, absurdism is all about embracing meaninglessness. Also compare the (anti)-art movement that preceded and inspired surrealism.
Surrealist art contains examples of:
- All Psychology Is Freudian
- Ambiguous Situation
- Animal Motifs: Several artists had them.
- Banned in China: Or Nazi Germany.
- Based on a Dream
- Breakout Character: Salvador Dalí.
- The Casanova: Max Ernst.
- Communism: Many of the surrealists were leftists.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: An art form in itself in occupied countries.
- Hilarious in Hindsight: Just to think that the "Manbabies" is a new meme, check out this painting by René Magritte.
- La Résistance: Several artists who remained in occupied France were part of it (Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon).
- Love Dodecahedron: A real-life example.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: The quest for a muse was basically the search for a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who could get the guy in touch with his spiritual side.
- Mind Screw
- Mistaken for Spies: Max Ernst. Because what else would a German be doing in France?
- Older Than They Think: Some works by medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch are very surrealistic.
- Spooky Séance: They loved them.
- True Art Is Angsty: Magritte, mostly, though he could be extremely funny as well.
- True Art Is Incomprehensible: Seems that way to a lot of people.
- Unreliable Narrator